Some twenty years after the ending of World War II, a gathering of drawings and paintings was found stacked in the damp storeroom of a psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg. The Prinzhorn Collection of the art of psychiatric patients, like many other collections, had been hidden away for the duration of hostilities but, unlike most, had been forgotten. It was rescued, recatalogued, and has since been on exhibition on the Continent and in the United States. Its existence, like that of the Wölfli Foundation in Berne and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, is an expression of a change in artistic direction that has its roots in the nineteenth century.

It was Charles Lamb at the end of the eighteenth century who wrote cheerfully that “I look back upon madness at times with a gloomy kind of envy. For while it lasted I had many hours of pure happiness. Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad” (he was later, faced with the real horror of madness, to change his mind about its grandeur). Half a century later Alexandre Dumas was referring to his friend Gérard de Nerval’s insanity when he wrote that Nerval “described, like a gossip, how it had happened, with such liveliness and joy, and with such amusing reversals and vicissitudes, that each of us felt a desire to become mad too.” A further twenty years and Rimbaud was making the famous affirmation of the poet’s goal as madman:

The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences…. Even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses sight of his visions, he has seen them!

The age-old fear of madness is easy to understand: the other side of the coin is the fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood. Nothing could be less true, as the wretched lives of the insane artists catalogued in Parallel Visions—and especially the life of Adolf Wölfli, the subject of Madness and Art—make clear. But the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive has underlain twentieth-century art.

Many contributing reasons for this—psychoanalytic exploration, contact with ethnic art, impatience with mass production and with art as a commodity—are suggested in Parallel Visions. The down-to-earth question of the invention of photography is scarcely mentioned, but it must have been seismic. Ernst Gombrich, discussing the flabbiness of Surrealist painting, has remarked that, like the oyster making its pearl around a piece of grit, the artist needs a hard core, or task, to work around. Making a faithful copy of the visual world had always been the artist’s grit, setting his sense of shape and color free to work unconsciously. After photography, after realism, the task was now to find an art absolutely free of the mechanical, whether tribal art, children’s painting, or the work of the insane.

The passion for the primitive among artists might be dated from Gauguin’s flight to Tahiti, or from the cult of the Douanier Rousseau, or from the Brücke and Blaue Reiter movements early in the century. Klee, the most articulate of artists, expressed the passion over and over again. “Neither childish behavior nor madness are insulting words…. All this is to be taken seriously, more seriously than art of the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today’s art.” “In our time worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into…. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them.” Other artists echoed him: “We must be brave and turn our back on almost everything that until now good Central Europeans like ourselves have thought precious and indispensable…if we are ever to escape the exhaustion of our European bad taste.”

Klee knew Prinzhorn’s collection. A colleague of Klee’s recorded in his recollections:

A mood of excited gaiety took hold of Klee. He took from a shelf Prinzhorn’s recently published book of pictures by the insane, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. It was at that time going the rounds in the Bauhaus. “You know this excellent piece of work by Prinzhorn, don’t you? Let’s see for ourselves. This picture is a fine Klee. So is this, and this one too. Look at these religious paintings. There’s a depth and power of expression that I never achieve in religious subjects. Really sublime art. Direct spiritual vision.”

Hans Prinzhorn, a Viennese, was unusual in being qualified both in art history and in psychiatry. After serving as an army surgeon in World War I he joined the staff of the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, where a small collection of patients’ pictures had already been made. Within less than four years he had amassed some five thousand pictures and sculptures by about five hundred artist-patients, reaching back to the 1890s, and covering several European countries and, in a few cases, the US and Japan. Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, his scholarly book on the collection reflecting his interest in the borderland between psychopathology and creativity, was well received and influential. Artistic work by psychiatric patients had been written about before, but from the point of view of diagnosis rather than simply for its own sake.


Prinzhorn’s impact on Klee and the artistic movements of his time is described by Reinhold Heller in a chapter on Expressionism in Parallel Visions, with pictures by Klee and “outsider” artists juxtaposed. The book is a catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum’s exhibition last year of Outsider Art*—“outsiders” being defined by Maurice Tuchman in his introduction as “compulsive visionaries,” self-taught, isolated from professional art, and sometimes mentally disturbed. Tuchman describes the problems of selection: children’s art and ethnic art were first considered, but dismissed. In the end the selectors have mixed professional and amateur artists (forty professionals and thirty-four amateurs) in a way that would have pleased the Expressionists: the work by outsiders is all material that has been seen and noticed by professional artists, and the professionals’ work has all been influenced by outsider art. Of the outsiders, thirteen are hospitalized psychotics, three are spiritualist mediums, and the rest untaught, reclusive, and quite isolated from sophisticated work.

Insanity got an especially good press from Surrealism, from its beginnings well before the first Manifesto of 1924. Its founder, André Breton, like Prinzhorn, had worked with shell-shocked troops during World War I, and recorded that he “could spend a whole lifetime eliciting the confidences of the mad. They are people of the most scrupulous honesty.” Originating as a literary movement drawing on automatic writing and dream records, Surrealism soon drew in visual artists. One of the most dedicated, Max Ernst, had got a message when consulting the spirits through automatic writing that he would “play with the madmen”—and so he did. He had the same interdisciplinary background as Prinzhorn, and only Prinzhorn’s book preempted him from writing on artist-patients himself. But, as Roger Cardinal points out in his chapter on Surrealism and its relation to outsider art, facile comparisons between the work of the would-be mad and of the genuinely mad are not appropriate. Paintings by Ernst, Dali, de Chirico, or Magritte differ radically from the work that came out of psychiatric wards, as a glance through Parallel Visions’ illustrations shows. Ernst’s Le Monde des naïfs is a beautiful and sophisticated reference to “outsider” art, by an insider.

Breton and his colleagues, though, felt that they were drawing directly on the Freudian unconscious; but if there was an unconscious they were drawing on, it was not Freud’s Id-pit of wild wickedness, but the innate sense of form that artists prefer to keep unverbalized. In 1938 Dali, mad only in the size of his megalomania, actually had a meeting with the very old Freud and convinced himself that he had converted the patron saint of the Surrealists to their art.

Many among both the Expressionists and the Surrealists seem to have believed that serious madness was enough to produce seriously good art (most, of course, had seen little lunacy at first hand). As several contributors to Parallel Visions point out, this is far from the case, and was far from the case even before the use of anti-psychotic drugs led to the almost complete disappearance of psychotic art. Nevertheless one cannot know how many other inmates of institutions might have produced interesting work if they had had the chance; what is reproduced here owes its survival partly to chance, but particularly to the support of enlightened doctors.

One such doctor was Gaston Ferdière, who worked at the Sainte-Anne Asylum in Paris from 1934, was acquainted with the work of Prinzhorn, and had friends in the Surrealist circle. Quitting Paris for the south after the German invasion, among a host of desperate refugees that included discharged psychiatric patients, he took charge of the hospital at Rodez that was to shelter Antonin Artaud, the one Surrealist who went through—unwillingly—the whole experience of madness. Ferdière encouraged Artaud to draw and write, and the work he produced at Rodez included his translation of a chapter of Through the Looking Glass (“All mimsy were the borogroves” was rendered “Jusqu’là où la rourghe est à rouarghe à rangmbde et rangmbe à rouarghambe“).

After the war, with a special animus against the Germans, who had included psychotic art in their celebrated Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, there was a positive outburst of interest in “outsider” art of every kind in Paris. “L’art des fous, la clef des champs” was the slogan. Ferdière’s collection of the work of his psychotic patients was exhibited in 1945, an exhibition at the Sainte-Anne the following year mixed works from the wards with avant-garde works, and the Surrealists painted a mural for the hospital, to replace one destroyed by the Nazis. The year 1947 saw exhibitions in Paris of Van Gogh and Blake, Surrealism and “Psychopathological Art”; the critics agreed that “the parallels between the work of patients and the art of twentieth-century painters—expressionists, surrealists, and certain pure abstract painters—are established beyond doubt.” Meanwhile Jean Dubuffet was inventing the category of art brut, making his own collection of psychotic and primitive art works (among them drawings by Adolf Wölfli) and beginning to paint with dust, straw, and grit mixed into his medium. An entirely new attack was being mounted on belle peinture, elitism, and tradition. The 1960s and after saw even more exhibitions, the publication of Dubuffet’s Asphyxiante Culture, and the spread of the whole movement and its influences from postwar France to New York and, in particular, to Chicago.


How remote this mix of anti-psychiatry, primitivism, existentialism, and the cerebral arguments of French intellectuals was from the sad, secluded lives of most of the artist-patients who inspired it! Parallel Visions gives brief biographies of the thirty-four outsider artists in the exhibition. Two who influenced several of their contemporaries, Johann Hauser and August Walla, were fostered by Dr. Leo Navratil of the psychiatric hospital at Gugging in Austria. Hauser, illiterate, attended a school for retarded children and was then institutionalized for life at seventeen with manic-depressive illness. He has been in the hospital for over forty years.

Walla was first placed in a clinic in adolescence because he was suicidal. Later he lived with his mother, and covered their small house with paintings. After he and his mother had both been committed to Gugging, Walla was housed in the Künstlerhaus (Artists’ House) set up by Navratil, where artist-patients could exhibit and sell their work. Illustrations show strong and confident paintings by both these artists—a green and red crowned Christ by Walla built up from stars, crosses, slogans, and letters, a fiercely toothed woman in multicolored stripes by Hauser. In a rather similar rich, stylized manner are the much earlier pictures by Aloïse Corbaz, a Swiss woman who was hospitalized for life and died in 1964. Her pictures center around her infatuation with the Kaiser and other imaginary lovers.

Among the eight Americans included are Simon Rodia and Henry Darger. Rodia, an Italian immigrant who arrived in the United States around the end of the nineteenth century, is known for his Watts Towers in Los Angeles. He bought a waste lot and worked for thirty-five years to build three 100-foot towers, surrounded by arches, fountains, and pavilions, out of cement and broken glass and tiles, climbing up to work on them with only a windowcleaner’s belt as support. In old age he sold them, and died alone in a cheap room; the towers are now listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

Where Rodia’s art was supremely visible, Darger’s was supremely secret. John M. MacGregor contributes an intensive study of Darger’s extraordinary output. Orphaned and raised in a home for the feeble-minded, he worked his entire life as custodian in a hospital. When he moved into an old people’s home, a 15,000-page saga, illustrated by collaged watercolors, was found in his room—“The Story of the Vivian Girls in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” In the work, based on Darger’s reading about the American Civil War, the war over child slavery causes vast massacres, fires, floods, deportations, and bombardments. At one point (in Darger’s real life) it seems that a picture that was precious to him got lost, and—reflecting no doubt the loss of his parents—from then on Darger’s war turns into a bloodbath: “Results of too many unjust trials. Will not bear them under any conditions, even at the risk of losing my soul, or causing the loss of many others, and vengeance will be shown if further trials continues! God is too hard on me. I will not bear it any longer for no one! Let him send me to Hell, I’m my own man.”

In these unbelievably lonely lives, it can be seen that it is contact with what is human, good, and real that underlies the writing, drawing, and building. Rodia built towers in memory of the towers made at an annual festa in his native Italy. Darger’s lifelong war was waged for the right of children not to be enslaved. Walla painted first to beautify his mother’s house. Aloïse Corbaz wrote stories in which she was loved by the Kaiser and other grandees, and in her pictures women’s breasts turn into flowers and their wombs into baskets of fruit. An English “outsider” painter who should have been in this exhibition is Alfred Wallis. A Cornish fisherman, living alone in St. Ives and painting local seascapes with marine paint on scraps of cardboard, he was discovered by Ben Nicholson in 1928. The influence of Wallis, not only on Nicholson but on a network of colleagues and descendants, has scarcely stopped even now, and Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Tobey, and Clement Greenberg have all visited St. Ives. Wallis too painted to preserve and to celebrate: “What I do mosely it what used to be out of my own memory what we may never see again as things are altered all together there is nothing what ever do not look like what is was sence I can remember.”

The life of Adolf Wölfli was as deprived as, or more deprived than, any of these. Walter Morgenthaler’s Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli was originally published in German in 1921, nine years before Wölfli’s death, and is now reissued in translation. Morgenthaler was Wölfli’s doctor at the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic in Bern for nearly ten years and his encouragement of Wölfli must have been exceptional for his time, for though Franz Marc had already written of “turning our backs on almost everything” that was assumed indispensable, and Klee and Kandinsky were extolling the vision of the mad, little psychotic art had at that time actually been seen: Prinzhorn’s book was not published until a year after Morgenthaler’s. This translation, from a French version done under Dubuffet’s direction in the 1960s, has been carried out by Dr. Aaron Esman of Cornell University Medical College. His bibliography appends no fewer than eighteen publications about Wölfli, on his own or among other outsider artists.

Part of Wölfli’s enormous output in the asylum was in writing, including an autobiography of his early life that he called From the Cradle to the Graave [sic], or, through working and sweating, suffering and hardship, even through prayer into damnation. He was born of the poorest parents—a drunken stonecutter and a laundress—in 1864 in Bern; by the time he was eight his mother had died and his father was in prison. From then on he went from farm to farm working as a hired hand, with little schooling and many beatings. In his teens he fell in love with a neighbor’s daughter, but was separated from her by her parents. After several attempts to molest young girls, he was first imprisoned and then, at the age of thirty, sent to the Waldau clinic for the rest of his life. “You Gentlemen and Ladies of quality,” he ends his autobiography, “who frequently don’t know yourselves what Christian virtue and justice are, look at the frequently sunken, deep-set eyes of the lower classes, where you can see all too clearly the sorrow and misery that weigh on their hearts.”

In the clinic he became indeed mad, beginning to have hallucinations and outbursts of violence, until he was put into solitary confinement. It was after some years of imprisonment that the staff noticed that he was beginning to draw and write, and that he was quiet and absorbed at those times. He asked eventually to stay in solitary confinement. When Morgenthaler joined the staff in 1908, Wölfli had been institutionalized for thirteen years. His drawing, writing, and—occasionally—composing were carried on compulsively. He saw no point in stopping, was afraid of empty time and empty space, every millimeter of his pictures consequently being filled up minutely with pattern, sometimes reminiscent of the swirling decoration of the giant wurlitzers of the past. (Schreber, in his Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, reported that when he played the piano the rhythm soothed his anxieties and hallucinations.) Wölfli was dependent on the crayons and coarse paper supplied him by the hospital—what might his coloring have been like with watercolors or oils available?—and on old magazines, maps, and photographs.

His themes relate to experiences from his early life, where he often figures as Saint Adolf, digressing sometimes to architectural fantasies or places he had seen in pictures. If the style of the twenty-four illustrations included here is typical—and both Morgenthaler and contributors to Parallel Visions remark that outsider art tends not to change or develop—the designs are often cruciform, elaborated with balanced arrangements of coils, stripes, checks, bars, and fine cross-hatching. Tiny expressionless faces dot the pictures, and rows of numbers, words, and musical notes writhe through them. As well as wurlitzers, medieval manuscripts sometimes come to mind. Suns, clocks, leaves, and branches are worked into the pattern, but no attempt is made to suggest three-dimensional space or human interactions. In the best of the pictures reproduced here, the tightness of the construction flows open a little, and the colors lighten.

In two respects Wölfli was evidently like every other artist. When asked what he was representing, he got rather irritated and said he had better things to do than talk. “He thinks with his pencil,” says Morgenthaler. He was also inclined to say at times that his painting “came from” somewhere: “Do you really think I could just make this all up in my head?” Most people who paint or write must have an inkling of that feeling. Wölfli also clearly had a certain grim humor at times. “There’s the work! You can’t imagine how taxing it is to try not to forget anything. It would surely drive a person crazy if he weren’t already,” he said as he showed Morgenthaler a drawing. He ended one of his writings with “I hope that the gentle reader will appreciate the entertainment performed here in my cell in the Mental Asylum.”

Wölfli’s writings are grandiose and unstoppably prolific. In bulk they must be unreadable, but at times it is easy to see why the Surrealists aspired to the condition of madness. Did they invent anything as surreal as the imperial pear tree that grows “giant flowers of Salamanca, magnificent and marvelous, of supreme elegance, gigantic and intelligent,” the cities of Ovianda, Alupka, Baktschisareeh, Akmolinsk, Zahnruss, Kalijmak, and Gatzim, did they melt boundaries by calling an aphorism a precious stone or a dilettante a type of star, or by classifying their drawings as polkas, songs, and marches? Breton, with Paul Eluard, made quite a good shot at deliberately writing as madman:

I didn’t have enough of the hundred and fifty châteaux where we went to make love, tomorrow I will have a hundred thousand others constructed, I have hunted peacocks, panthers and lyrebirds in the baobab forests of your eyes, I will imprison them in my strongholds and we shall walk together in the forests of Asia, of Europe, of America which surround our châteaux in the admirable forests of your eyes which are accustomed to my splendour.

But the work of the genuine madman is better:

The numerous and diverse manifestations of sympathy coming from the inhabitants of these regions knew no limits. Innumerable and excellent orchestras and ditto, the chorales: gigantic military parades formed in rows: war harbour and the thunder of cannons and firearms: luxurious night festivals with Bengal fireworks over sea, land and harbour: Ynaventura, Regenitta of Bengala of 28 heavenly flashes: likewise the gigantic and immense festivals of swimming, gymnastics, dance, and other supremely elegant and graceful performances of art and spirits—

and so on. No wonder he asked how he could possibly have made it all up in his own head!

Wölfli also composed tunes of a folk-music kind, which have actually been copied out and played. All in all, one has to agree with Morgenthaler that “nature seems to have made a grand experiment with our patient, an experiment through which certain workings of the mind and their underlying structures have been laid bare which otherwise could have been isolated only through abstraction.” The grand experiment was also to see whether natural creativity and energy can survive appalling blows. That the Expressionist and Surrealist artists who ascribed the force of psychotic art to the psychosis itself were wrong is shown by Morgenthaler’s account of a drawing exercise done by a group of his patients: while the other patients scribbled at random, Wölfli “viewed the sheet of paper as a whole, divided it up, placed the three circles as three heads in relation to one another, drew a border around the edge of the paper, filled in the intermediate space decoratively, and so on, so that a harmonious whole was formed.” Might it be relevant that his father was a stonecutter? If this means an engraver on stone (as for tombstones) rather than a simple stonebreaker, some innate sense of pattern might have been inherited; or Wölfli might have seen his father at work and retained a memory of it. The absence of conventional artifice that Breton and others so admired would have been nothing without the visual talent—something that can be discerned even in young children, like musical precocity.

Morgenthaler argues that the prime motivation for Wölfli’s art was to stabilize his fragmented world, provide a counterforce against disintegration. His pictures and writings—and no doubt those of the other outsider artists in Parallel Visions—established some order in space and time, and some mastery over chaos. Morgenthaler suggests also that a certain depth of feeling in the artist is necessary in order to move other people—something that madness does not necessarily confer. We have to fall back on Freud’s dictum that “Before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.” It is something to know that in his lifetime Wölfli evidently came to know that his pictures were valued and celebrated.

One of Dubuffet’s quoted sayings is that “there is no more an art of the insane than there is an art of dyspeptics and people with sore knees.” Is it true, or is there a recognizable “psychotic style”? There is a danger, of course, of oversimplifying, and lumping together all outsider art. In the Parallel Visions group, for instance, there are artists who defy generalization: Joseph Yoakum, born on a Navaho reservation and learning to paint in his seventies; Hauser, mentioned earlier, a mental patient whose style varied drastically according to whether he was in a manic or a depressive phase. There are also outsider artists, clearly distinguishable from the rest, who worked from hospital wards but had had artistic experience before becoming ill.

There remains a group who share a certain style, even though each is distinctive. At a glance, there are eight outsider artists in Parallel Visions besides Wölfli who use the same one-dimensional, tightly detailed schema in which every part of the page is filled in with tiny shape within shape. Interestingly, the English painter Richard Dadd, an accomplished artist who was committed to Bethlem Hospital in 1844 after murdering his father, shows the same obsessionalism. His The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, at the Tate Gallery in London, is crammed with minute, elaborate figures that almost demand a magnifying glass to be appreciated. One might have expected the work of psychotic artists to be like Bacon’s tortured faces or Munch’s Scream or the slashed canvases of De Kooning, rather than compulsively patterned. Morgenthaler ascribes this style to horror vacui, dread of emptiness. Artaud may have implied this when he wrote of a “central collapse of the soul, a sort of erosion, both essential and fleeting, of thought,” which meant that “when I can grasp a form, imperfect as it may be, I fix it, for fear of losing all thought.”

What is missing in this claustrophobic art is any sense of space, of an open world. The Expressionist artist Alfred Kubin wrote of the Prinzhorn Collection in 1922 that “these wonders of the artists’ minds…make you happy just looking at them”—but this was still the Romantic view of the childlike, playful madman. More realistic is a later comment by the Dutch artist Appel that this art is “depressive, not a stimulant like Picasso, Klee, or van Gogh.” Barbara Rossi, a Chicago artist much influenced by a course on “Fantastic and Eccentric Art,” is quoted in Parallel Visions as saying that she “perceived a quiet scream…. The scream seemed to proceed from these artists’ awareness of their distance from their imagined viewers in ‘the outside world.” I am not sure whether, seeing these pictures without knowing their provenance, one would indeed hear the scream behind the firm bars of pattern. The primary motivation of these artists—and all artists—Prinzhorn said, was to build a bridge to other people. If so, and if we find memories of pleasure and color in their work as well as the scream, then something in these desperately isolated men and women, some almost mute, some in contact with no one but their doctors, has spoken out and reached us.

This Issue

April 8, 1993