The Daily Heller: When Art and Madness Drove Crazy People Mad

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In the wake of World War I, conflict was still raging in German cultural and political circles. The morals and mores of life were challenged to the core, and the expression of national—if not global—trauma was interpreted by artists who were either inspired by or directly impacted by psychiatric illness. Patients housed in asylums were not just costly to the national healthcare system, but to the consternation of many, they were creating a new normal for artistic endeavor. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism and Hitler’s War on Art by Charlie English (Random House), documents the intersection of art by patients and professionals (including Paul Klee, Alfred Kubin and Max Ernst) of the period (Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism—in fact, most of the Avant Garde –isms) and how it was cause for great concern that degeneracy was destroying German Volk values.

English focuses on German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933), a doctor and art historian who, after World War I, took paintings by patients from psychiatric institutions and built the Heidelberg collection that underscored influence in (and revulsion for) revolutionary styles of what the Nazis condemned as Modernism’s perverse madness. This kind of imagery was not seen as a reflection of nature but an outgrowth of illness. Prinzhorn’s unprecedented collection was a means to dig below the surface of patients' conditions (later called “outsider art”), and during the 1920s and early 1930s it was also the inspiration for many of today’s most celebrated “professional” artists. Many of the “insane” artists were killed in the notorious Nazi T4 program. Some of the professionals, known for their genius today, either escaped from Germany, went into exile or were murdered by the SS.

Hitler identified as “the artist-Führer.” He fanatically believed that the German (Aryan) spirit was enshrined in German representational romantic art. He upheld that “refashioning race was artistic enterprise.” He railed against the “half-wits” and “scoundrels” who attempted to stultify “the healthy artistic feeling” of true German romanticism. Goebbels declared that “only under the hand of an artist can a people be shaped from the masses, and a nation from the people.” Although Hitler thought he was a great artist, he was rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, and his enmity towards non-conformist, gut-wrenching expressive and “new objective” art exploded into murderous fury.

Franz Karl Bühler, self portrait, 1919. Bühler was a significant influence on modern artists like Paul Klee.

English addresses how this perfect storm of psychiatric art (intended for clinical study) and the novel modes of artistic expression (significantly derived from the visions of war) were conflated with Hitler’s belief that German culture was spoiled by Entartung (degeneracy) and was symptomatic of a national disease destined to be culturally and ethnically “cleansed” in the future Third Reich through its secret euthanasia policy (using lethal gas on patients, which led directly to the Holocaust).

70,000 “incurables,” representing a host of mental illnesses, were killed. Their “dangerous to look at” art was either destroyed or used as comparative examples in the infamous Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) traveling exhibitions that were among the most popular attractions in Nazi Germany (even during the war).

One of the many indictments against the Bauhaus was that it nullified classical and, especially, German traditions. English provides a shocking overview of how art—aesthetics—and design could have such a toxic impact on a society such as Nazi Germany, where its leader, in the name of purity of the arts, had the power to purge a wholesale segment of the populace and popular thought. Through draconian decrees, sanctions and laws, art that confronted convention became legitimately disparaged and criminalized, its creators’ lives ruined or expunged.

English intricately weaves threads of degeneracy, mental illness, cultural illegitimacy and its impact not just on art but on the soul of a nation in the grip of true madmen—and it made for the most relevant history I read over the summer.

Jakob Mohr, Beweisse [Proofs], ca. 1910. Courtesy Prinzhorn Collection, University of Heidelberg.