Piecing together a lost history & Forget Me Not

By Mari Vallikivi & Thomas Röske


Piecing together a lost history & Forget Me Not

By Mari Vallikivi & Thomas Röske

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" Allik, J. 2022. Eesti psühholoogia lugu. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 66., as Kraepelin writes in his memoirs. The majority of the patients at the hospital were Estonians but there were also Germans, Latvians, Russians, Finns and Jewish and Polish people but the professor struggled to find a common language and due to the pressure of the RussificationIn the second half of the 19th century, the Russian Empire, which Estonia was part of at the time, led a policy of supressing the right of self-determination and autonomy of ethnic minorities. policy, in 1891, he returned to Germany. In Tartu, Kraepelin developed the nosological classification of mental illnesses, with two of the most significant groups of illnesses being maniacal depressive illnesses and dementia praecox (contemporary term: schizophrenia).Allik, J. 2022. Eesti psühholoogia lugu. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 68 During his time there, the conditions for patients in the facility were also improved. It is highly likely that it was then that medical professionals started collecting materials, such as writings, scribbles and drawings, as part of patients’ medical records for the first time in Tartu. This was all seen as part of their case history that contributed to their diagnosis. 

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.Brand-Claussen, B. 2021. Between Respect and Ostracism. The History of a Crazy Collection, Introduction to the Prinzhorn Collection, 6

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.Outsider Art Now, 2017. Outsider Art Museum, 48 The book was less influential in the field of psychiatry but still carries significance in the field of art. It had a considerable impact on both the Expressionists and the Surrealists. Alongside Expressionist art, a few works from the Prinzhorn collection were also displayed at the Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) travelling exhibition in Nazi Germany from 1937 to 1942. Kraepelin died in 1926 before the Third Reich was established; however, he believed that "a policy of reasonable racial hygiene" (verstandige rassenhygiene) could provide a solution to issues related to ‘degeneration’ in Germany, referring to the view that certain cultural influences contribute to the downfall and weakening of a race.Rael D. Strous etc, 2016. Reflections on Emil Kraepelin: Icon and Reality. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 173 (3), 300-301 He was convinced that society must protect itself from mentally ill people, just like it should from those with contagious illnesses and many of his attitudes were later echoed in his students, several of whom became prominent Nazi psychiatrists. Yet, despite Nazi policies on ‘degenerate’ art, the collection remained nearly untouched and was preserved in a cupboard in the archive of the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic. 

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.

Jane Grier, Forget Me Not, 1892. Prinzhor Collection, Heidelberg

Mari Vallikivi is an art historian based in Viljandi, Estonia. She has worked as the director of the Kondas Centre art museum since 2003. Estonian outsider art has been her research focus over the last 15 years.

Thomas Röske has been head of the Prinzhorn Collection of the Psychiatric University Clinic in Heidelberg since 2002. He studied the history of art, musicology and psychology at Hamburg University and obtained his doctorate in 1991 with a book about Hans Prinzhorn. He now teaches art history alternately at Frankfurt University and at Heidelberg University. He has published mainly on German Modernism and Outsider Art. Since 2012, he has been the president of the European Outsider Art Association.