I just finished a chapter on Hans Prinzhorn in the book “The Discovery of the Art of the Insane.” Prinzhorn got a PhD in art history before he became a psychiatrist and head of the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic. He collected asylum art from all over Europe during the beginning of the twenty first century. He was not interested in making diagnostic inferences in asylum art as the asylum art psychiatrists had examined before him. He collected and published asylum art in his book “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” which means “The Artistry of the Mentally Ill.” Prinzhorn was interested in the psychology of image making in all art. The work in his book was intended to reach Europe’s avant garde impressionist artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His book succeeded. A movement called Art Brut emerged. Formally trained avant garde artists explored what is now termed “outsider art” that involved the works of persons not formally trained. Prinzhorn and artists of the beginning of the 20th century wanted to explore the roots of all creative expression.
At this time in history, the head of Switzerland’s Waldau Asylum, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler, collected the masterful art of Adolf Wolfli. Dr. Morgenthaler explored the aesthetics of Wolfli’s prolific works. Because of Morgenthaler’s book, “A Mental Patient as Artist,” Wolfli became famous.
The primary reason I’m posting about this topic is because of the similarities and talents of Wolfli and a schizophrenic former friend whom I’ll call X.
Like Wolfli, X worked in many mediums: drawing, music, writing and film. Wolfli produced much more than X, but both were incredibly prolific. I remember when I was in my twenties how much fun X and I had collaborating and hanging out. I made prints based on his drawings as well as animations. About 4 years ago he gave me some very short stories. They were full of language quirks such as what psychiatrists describe as clanging (where words characterized by association of words based upon sound rather than concepts) and onomatopoeias, but were also coherent and funny. The clanging actually added appeal to his stories. I photographed X often. One time he put shaving cream over his entire face and scowled in a mirror so the image has both X’s profile and the front of his lathered face. It was hilarious and I still have that picture. I took another picture of him wearing a mask that I gave him. X gave me a book of new drawings about five years ago and the quality of his drawings had diminished quite a bit. They lacked the humor and sensitivity to line that his earlier drawings had. I really wish I could share X’s work with the world, but we’re not friends anymore. He developed a delusion that we were together in a past life and was such a douche about it the last time I saw him that I felt threatened. Sure enough, I contacted his guardian of twenty years (he was considered too ill to be able to manage his trust fund without winding up homeless) and she had dropped him because he physically threatened her.
The parallels between Wolfli and X are eerie. Both were in foster care, both worked in similar mediums: visual art, music and writing. Wolfli’s art was much denser. X’s works were simple and humorous. X was a musical prodigy so he was trained to write and play music, but not trained in the visual arts, creative writing or film. X inherited schizophrenia from his mother. His home life was chaotic and he was neglected to the point that he was removed and put in foster care. Wolfli’s mother also couldn’t take care of him and Wolfli wound up in foster care also. It wasn’t called foster care during Wolfli’s youth but that’s essentially what it was. Both were abused while in foster care.
I treasure those early years. I guess this is mostly about X, but since I can’t show any of his wonderful drawings I’ll show this video of Wolfli’s work instead.
While I collaborated with X, I became interested in the art of other mentally ill people without any formal training. At about that time I encountered Wolfli’s work in an art magazine. I had hoped that by starting an art workshop at my local drop-in center that I would find someone as talented as X. No one comes close. It wasn’t a total loss. I report about what happens at the drop-in center in my other blog, Word Salad World and the amusing things the clients say. It’s good material, just not the kind of material I originally wanted.
My entire friendship with X was dysfunctional from the beginning. For years X kept reassuring me that he would go along with just being friends and then his ulterior motive of wanting to get in bed would surface and there would be some blow up and we wouldn’t speak for months or years at a time. We used to have so much fun collaborating many years ago. That’s why I continued to consider him a friend for so many years, but it was always the same pattern and always a meltdown on his part that would estrange us for long periods of time. Then he’d call and tell me he could cope with being just friends. But after a while he’d turn into a douche. The last time I saw him was the worst. He told me that my face aged into a frown. He said I’d be punished if I didn’t dump my husband and be with him. I’d come back as a cockroach or something like that. He said a lot more but it made no sense because he was incoherent. After that, I was done. I don’t know why I gave him so many chances because it was the same pattern over and over. I think it was because of his creativity. He was a muse. I’d like to write a piece of flash fiction about our last encounter – his ambushing me with his “spiritual advisor” and this man’s wife and their insipid, superstitious, new age bullshit. X was angry that I would only meet w him in public places. He kept leaving messages on my home phone about coming over to his apartment.
I got better and he got worse. He remembers absolutely everything anyone says and sees me as I was while I was drinking and smoking pot and I’m not that person anymore. I quit doing that over 20 years ago. It’s like he’s stuck. He reminds me of things I’d rather not remember.
I guess I have resentment, but I used X too. I wanted to incorporate his art in my work. My grief is about losing a muse and outrage over how he treated me the last time I saw him. I really wish I could show the world his talent like Prinzhorn and Morganthaler did for their artists. The video below is about Art Brut and shows some of the art from Prinzhorn’s collection. I hope you will be as fascinated with the work of these asylum artists as I am.