Piecing together a lost history
By Mari Vallikivi
One of the largest collections of art works by psychiatric patients created before the emergence of contemporary psychopharmacology is located at the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg. The museum housing this collection is located in the building of the old clinic (Altklinikum Bergheim) at Heidelberg University.
Among the first who started looking more closely at the creative works of mentally ill people was Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926), the founder of scientific psychiatry and the founder of the experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Tartu. He worked at Heidelberg University from 1891 to 1903 and before that also in Tartu, Estonia (1886–1891). In 1887, he became a professor of psychiatry and the head of the University of Tartu psychiatric hospital, but due to the language barrier, the daily work with patients turned out to be "extremely troublesome"
There are not many works in the Prinzhorn collection from the period Kraepelin worked at Heidelberg but among them, for example, is a handkerchief embroidered by Jane Grier (1856–1902) that will also be displayed at the exhibition If you could understand something from the dreams you had? at Tartu Art Museum (17 June – 15 October 2023). Kraepelin also used patients' artworks as teaching materials; for example, in 1896, he “sought to demonstrate the ‘degenerate’ in symbolism with patient drawings”, and during diagnostics exercises, he combined art by patients with mental illnesses with reproductions of modern art.
Years later, Kraepelin's former assistant and the head of the Heidelberg University psychiatric hospital Karl Wilmanns (1873–1945), together with Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933), who had studied both medicine and art history and started working at the clinic as an assistant in 1919, began expanding the collection of patients' art for research purposes in the same year. Wilmanns and Prinzhorn wrote to asylums and private clinics of German-speaking countries to ask for drawings, paintings, sculptures and scribbles expressing the patients' psychosis to be sent to their facility in Heidelberg. Their request did not go unanswered and the collection in Heidelberg received nearly 5,000 new works. In 1922, Hanz Prinzhorn published a book titled Artistry of the Mentally Ill (Bildnerei der Geisteskranken), in which he stated that artworks of mentally ill people "resemble art" and are thus not merely support material in establishing a fitting diagnosis.
The exhibition at the Tartu Art Museum looks at a ground-breaking era in the histories of both psychiatry and art and makes visible the links between Tartu and Heidelberg. Alongside works from the Prinzhorn Collection, the exhibition displays works by psychiatric patients from early 20th century Tartu.
Forget me not
By Thomas Röske
The impressive embroidered handkerchief, dated 1897, is the only surviving work by Jane Grier (1856–1902). It was illustrated on a colour plate by the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin in his important psychiatric textbook of 1913 as an "example of the peculiar works of art" by people diagnosed with dementia praecox (later schizophrenia). For his diagnostic view, accordingly, only the “loss of taste in screaming color combinations and strange shapes” asserted itself in the textile.
The unmarried governess and lady’s companion Grier, born in Ireland as the daughter of a ship's doctor, was living with her mother and sister in Dresden-Neustadt in 1892 when she felt watched and became increasingly agitated. Because she laughed often for no reason, dressed conspicuously, and behaved indecently, her mother sent her to the city's mental hospital for two months. Further stays here, and at the Pirna institution followed. Grier died in Dresden hospital at the age of 46.Her embroidery on a men's handkerchief reveals little structure at first glance. Grier initially stitched messages to assistant doctor Willführ in Dresden in four of the corner cartouches for him to remember her. The rest of the needlework, however, is unevenly spread over the handkerchief, loops of whole bundles of yarn are sewn onto some sections, others are not designed. But for the most part, the yarn was not placed haphazardly. Grier used a bundle of threads to frame one of the cartouches. With another, she apparently wanted to design an even more lavish decoration. The loops of different coloured yarn bundles used for this are not symmetrical, but they do form an equally weighted, Baroque whole. Only after this decoration does the embroidery thread seem to have taken on a life of its own, with at least the heart shape on the edge of the cloth probably being intentionally pictorial. In increasing the adornment around her plea not to forget her, the embroiderer, perhaps emotionally overwhelmed, lost control of the composition.