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11 April 2000

Museum and Research Centre

Statement by the Prinzhorn Collection Centre of the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Heidelberg on the controversy with the Bundesverband Psychiatrie-Erfahrener (Federal Association of Psychiatry Experts; in the following "BPE") over the appropriate location for the Collection (Heidelberg/Berlin)

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The history of the dispute
It was in the summer of 1996 that the custodian of the Prinzhorn Collection, Dr. Jádi, first heard of the BPE's claim that the Prinzhorn Collection should be passed into its keeping. At a meeting with Dr. Jádi, René Talbot, the director of the Berlin group of the BPE and initiator and spokesman of this claim, declared that in Berlin plans were afoot to set up a memorial centre dedicated to the victims of the National Socialist euthanasia drive and that the Prinzhorn Collection was to be the centrepiece of it. An architect had already submitted plans for the building that would ultimately house the memorial centre. An anonymous donor was reported to be willing to finance the building in the form of a foundation but his willingness was conditional upon the permanent presence of the Prinzhorn Collection on the premises. Dr. Jádi voiced her grave doubts that the state of Baden-Württemberg would be prepared to hand over the Collection and herself made it clear that she saw no grounds to do so as Heidelberg University itself was already planning a museum to house the Collection. As an alternative, Dr. Jádi offered a form of project-related collaboration with the BPE culminating in an exhibition of the Collection in Berlin for a limited period. This offer was obviously not in line with what the BPE had in mind; in the further course of events it was never referred to again, let alone taken up. It should be noted, incidentally, that in the face of subsequent experiences with the BPE the Heidelberg Prinzhorn Collection Centre is no longer prepared to collaborate on such a project.

Despite the fact that a museum in Heidelberg was already in the planning stage, the model for the Berlin location was elaborated further and publicised so massively that persons not immediately involved were bound to gain the impression that the Prinzhorn Collection museum would in fact be moving to Berlin. Prominent personalities from public life agreed to join the board of trustees of the Berlin foundation Haus des Eigensinns, thus supporting the (in our eyes highly laudable) project of setting up a centre enshrining the memory of the victims of the National Socialist euthanasia campaign. As these trustees are on the one hand not fully acquainted with the Heidelberg Prinzhorn Collection centre, its history and the work it has been doing over the past few decades but on the other hand are acutely aware of the international significance of the Collection itself, they have espoused the arguments put forward by Mr. Talbot, i.e. they actively urge the claim that Berlin should be the location for the Collection. It is worth noting in this connection that only one of the gentlemen on the board of trustees has approached the Prinzhorn Collection centre with a view to forming an opinion of his own on the Heidelberg view of the matter. He subsequently resigned from the board of trustees of the Berlin foundation.

The BPE then initiated a highly polemic media campaign disseminating arguments based largely on misrepresentations and distortions of the facts. The gravest of these are enlarged upon below. It was not until 1998 that the BPE (initially in writing) officially approached the relevant institutions in Heidelberg/Baden-Württemberg, such as the Psychiatric Hospital itself, the Administration of the University Hospital Complex, the Rectorate of the University of Heidelberg and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research in Stuttgart. After careful perusal of the arguments presented, all those with responsibility for the care and custody of the Prinzhorn Collection were unanimous that while there were no justifiable reasons for a switch of location to Berlin there were a great many arguments in favour of keeping the Collection in Heidelberg. In all instances the official response to the representations of the BPE was negative.

A little later, at the request of the BPE, a meeting took place at the Rector's office of the University of Heidelberg involving two members of the board of trustees from Berlin (Professor Raue and Bishop Huber), the rector of the University of Heidelberg (Professor Siebke), the vice-rector of the Heidelberg Medical Faculty (Professor Kirchheim) and the director of the Psychiatric Hospital (Professor Mundt). As the arguments advanced by the BPE representatives during this exchange did not add anything new to those already put forward, Professor Siebke emphasised once again that there could be no question of passing the Collection into the hands of the BPE or reducing the body of the Collection through permanent loans (an alternative proposal from Berlin). A number of comments made by the representatives of the foundation in the course of the colloquy strongly confirmed the suspicion that their interest in the Collection centres less on the works it contains than on the high international reputation it has gained in the last 15 years through exhibitions and publications. The presence of the Collection in Berlin is patently designed to enhance the attractiveness of the planned project and thus act as an incentive prompting the City of Berlin to provide financial support in the form of the plot of land at No. 4 Tiergartenstrasse required for the realisation of the memorial centre.

Since the beginning of the controversy in 1996 the BPE (largely represented by René Talbot) has been notable for the emotional, aggressive style in which it has conducted the debate and also for its unwillingness (or inability) to engage with the arguments put forward by those legally and factually responsible for the Collection. Despite protests on our part, fallacious assertions of a populistic nature designed to mislead outsiders into believing what is patently not true have yet to be retracted and are in fact still used for the purposes of specious propagandistic assertions. The unremitting agitation on the part of the BPE, launched via all the media channels at its disposal, surpasses all tolerable limits, both in its diction and in the distortion of the facts. Statements about the persons and institutions whose job it is to care for the Prinzhorn Collection verge in some cases on character assassination. We have also learned that journalists taking the trouble to hear the case from both sides instead of availing themselves uncritically of the polemical, highly media-oriented, and hence superficially attractive arguments of the Berliners have been at the receiving end of vituperative letters from Mr. Talbot should they venture, after close comparison of the rival arguments, to come out in favour of the Heidelberg view of the matter.

In view of all this it is hardly surprising that from the outset the BPE should have ridden roughshod over standards of professional etiquette that are normally taken for granted. BPE brochures for the planned memorial centre and other pamphlets from the same source have regularly contained reproductions of works from the Prinzhorn Collection without any prior request for the permission to do so. The same is true of the texts written by the patients, which, into the bargain, were also wrongly attributed. Exhibition titles coined by the Prinzhorn museum and research centre—e.g. Wahnsinnige Schönheit ("Insane Beauty")—have been unscrupulously misappropriated to promote the concerns of the Berlin foundation and damage the interests of the Heidelberg centre.

In the recent past attempts have been made to interest Jewish organisations in the plans of the BPE by linking the Prinzhorn Collection to aspects of the Holocaust. A case in point is the way in which the BPE has taken the phrase Beutekunst der Mörder ("art plundered by the murderers") coined by Jewish sources to refer to an entirely different context and used it to insinuate to the uninitiated similar Third Reich atrocities in connection with the compilation of the Prinzhorn Collection. Although there is absolutely no foundation to this whatsoever, the interest it has aroused among American and Israeli journalists unfamiliar with the true facts is understandable. We hope that the following description of the history of the Prinzhorn Collection will be sufficient to clear up the misunderstandings provoked by the BPE and its activities.

The history of the Prinzhorn Collection as a central argument for its location in Heidelberg
The claims put forward by the BPE are largely based on assertions of a historical and moral nature. These assertions refer exclusively to the era of National Socialism, as if there were no history of the Collection before or after the Third Reich. The fact that the Collection is located at a Heidelberg hospital which was involved in the Nazi euthanasia drive is regarded as sufficient reason to remove it from that site. Historically, however, there are no grounds for such an argument. It is incidentally worthy of note that in contradiction to its own reasoning the BPE intends to substitute for what it calls the "horror location" in Heidelberg a site which has a very much greater history of horrors: No. 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin. It was from here that the plan for the euthanasia drive actually originated; and it is here that the memorial centre is to be put up. As a locality we find it extremely convincing, as convincing in fact as it is to keep the Prinzhorn Collection at the site of its chequered history. At both venues it is both imperative and feasible to pit an opposing vision against the atrocities of National Socialism.

1919 to 1933
Between 1919 and 1921 art historian Hans Prinzhorn sent out a circular letter to the major psychiatric hospitals of the period and thus succeeded in decisively expanding a small existing collection of drawings by Heidelberg patients. When he left the Hospital in 1921 the Collection had grown to over 5,000 items. Thereafter the influx of works gradually dwindled. In 1933 the collection of such works of art was terminated altogether. It is thus undeniably the case that the works of art assembled in the Prinzhorn Collection all stem from the period between the turn of the century and 1933.

The name of the Collection is not merely an acknowledgment of Prinzhorn's successful activity as a compiler but also of the fact that he was the first to subject the works thus collected to scientific study, producing the still highly thought-provoking and apposite book Bildnerei der Geisteskranken ("The Art of the Mentally Ill") published by Springer Verlag, Berlin, in 1922. This publication was a genuine revelation to the contemporary protagonists of modern art (Paul Klee, Max Ernst etc.). In a manner highly untypical for the thinking of the day, Prinzhorn's study transcends the boundaries of an exclusively psychopathological perspective. In his book Prinzhorn inquires first of all into fundamental questions of human creativity. In addition he takes a biographical approach to 10 selected examples in an attempt to gain a comprehensive picture of the personalities of their authors by means of close analysis of the works. In the third section of the book he draws interesting parallels to developments in modern art and the specific contribution of modern art to the expression of the zeitgeist of the early 20th century. Everything in the book is angled at advancing a view of sick people which conceives of the feelings, thinking and creative drive of the mentally disturbed as highly distinctive forms of— admittedly extreme—but in the last resort squarely and fully human potentialities. A side-effect of this, incidentally, was that Prinzhorn was vehemently rejected as "unscientific" by the majority of his fellow psychiatrists.

René Talbot refers to Hans Prinzhorn as a "racist, anti-Semite and Nazi ideologue". In the given context the accusation is unfounded. In none of his writings on the "Art of the Mentally Sick" is there one single passage that would justify such a description. This is not to deny that shortly before his death in 1933 Prinzhorn flirted with the idea of National Socialism. But in the 1920s, the period in which he concerned himself with artistic production by mentally disturbed patients, his attitude may be correctly termed anti-fascist. He shared this attitude with Jewish colleagues at the Hospital and above all with the then director, Prof. Wilmanns. It is the latter's highly astute choice of assistant that made the Hospital under his directorship a centre of phenomenological-cum-anthropological research. Prinzhorn's study of the Collection took place with Wilmanns' express approval and performed a "pace-maker" function in the process of recognition, admiration and scientific/academic attention for the artistic products of the mentally disturbed which we have come to take for granted today. Wilmanns was ousted from his post in 1933 for refusing to dismiss his Jewish assistants; his liberal and anti-fascist stance was anathema to the new power-holders. It is regrettable that in his defamatory account of the Hospital René Talbot sees fit to pass over these historical facts in silence.

The history of the origins of the Collection also casts light on another of the issues posed by the BPE, the question of the ownership rights for the Collection. As confirmed by Professor Raue's legal expertise, drawn up at the instigation of the BPE, the Collection is the rightful property of the University of Heidelberg. As a member of the board of trustees of the Berlin foundation, Professor Raue has however cast aspersions of a moral nature on these rights of ownership, in line with the BPE's argumentation insinuating "malignant acquisition" of the patients' works and using phrases like "plundered art" to imply expropriation and illicit possession. Historically this is untenable. Most of the works stem from medical case histories to which they were initially appended as illustrative material. It is likely that they came into the hands of the physicians in a variety of ways. Probably the major portion of the works (as we know by experience) were ignored by their creators after production and would have been destroyed if they had not aroused the interest of the doctors. There are other instances, of course, where the patients themselves accorded artistic merit to their own work. They experienced the interest of the doctors as acknowledgment and encouragement and gave them the works as gifts. In individual cases works were indeed taken away but this was by no means the rule.

It must be emphasised in this connection that around the turn of the century when most of these works were created artistic endeavour on the part of mentally disturbed patients was seen almost exclusively as an expression of their mental disorder. It was therefore unthinkable that the doctors should have been desirous of obtaining these products as "valuable" works of art. The evaluation of such works as being of artistic interest and the discussion about their artistic status was not to take place until very much later. In this respect Prinzhorn was ahead of his time. His book demands to be seen as a pioneering factor in this development.

Then came the horrors of the National Socialist dictatorship. The new director of the Hospital was Carl Schneider who was involved in the "T4" campaign as examiner-in-chief and engaged in active research of his own on the brains of murdered mentally handicapped children. His interest in the Collection was restricted entirely to the opportunity it gave him as a convinced eugenicist and National Socialist to defame modern art by comparing it to the "aberrations" of mentally disturbed patients. The grim irony is that it is probably to this perverted intention on Schneider's part that the Collection owes its very survival.

For purposes of comparison the Hospital placed work from the Prinzhorn Collection at the disposal of the notorious Nazi exhibition on "Degenerate Art" which toured the German-speaking countries in that period. The extant returns list shows that some of the exhibits did not in fact find their way back to Heidelberg, probably being destroyed as worthless. It is thus fair to say that the Collection was abused by the Nazis for ideological purposes and also materially compromised. At the end of the war Carl Schneider escaped being called to account for his crimes by committing suicide.

In this connection some brief reference needs to be made to a constantly recurring element in the arguments put forward by the Berlin foundation although it in fact has no connection whatsoever with the Collection itself, namely the extent to which the patients whose works are represented in the Prinzhorn Collection were themselves victims of the euthanasia drive. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of these patients were already dead before the euthanasia campaign got under way. As far as we know, four patients fell victim to the Nazi euthanasia drive. In 30 cases the biographies of the patients cannot be satisfactorily reconstructed, which means that euthanasia cannot be ruled out as the cause of death. At present the relevant archive material is being closely examined in an attempt to cast light on this issue.

The history of the Collection during the National Socialist era is one of the main concerns of the research undertaken by the Heidelberg Prinzhorn centre at present. Art historian Dr. Brand-Claussen has been examining this whole complex for a number of years. The ongoing findings of her work have been published in a variety of contexts (cf. B. Brand-Claussen: "Die Irren und die Entarteten. Die Rolle der Prinzhorn-Sammlung im Nationalsozialismus" in: Von einer Welt zur Andern, DuMont, Cologne, 1990; "Das Museum für pathologische Kunst in Heidelberg. Von den Anfängen bis 1945" in: Wahnsinnige Schönheit, Wunderhorn, Heidelberg, 1997, etc.). Cooperation is very close with the national research group "Medizin im Nationalsozialismus" of which two doctors from the Heidelberg hospital are members. In May 1998 a memorial for the children murdered at the behest of Carl Schneider for the purposes of scientific research was erected immediately outside the Heidelberg hospital. A colloquium organised to coincide with this event examined various aspects of the euthanasia phenomenon, with the role of the Heidelberg hospital figuring prominently in the discussion.

Another propagandistically effective but untrue assertion by the BPE repeatedly used for tactical purposes despite explicit rectification on our part calls for specific mention at this point. The assertion is that the Heidelberg museum is to be housed in the very rooms in which Carl Schneider did his teaching and kept the brains he had appropriated for his research purposes. It culminates in the phrase "art plundered for the lecture-hall of the murderers". The truth of the matter is that the lecture-hall building selected to house the new museum was never used by the Psychiatric Hospital. It served exclusively as a lecture venue for the Neurological Hospital. Each of these hospitals has a director of its own. Some years ago the Neurological Hospital moved to the so-called Neuklinikum. The hospital building thus vacated was placed at the disposal of the Psychiatric Hospital and is already in use (Haus 2). The building foreseen for the Prinzhorn Collection is the adjacent lecture-hall building built in 1880.

1945 to the present
In the turmoil of the post-war years little attention was given to the Prinzhorn Collection. In the mid-sixties physician Dr. Maria Rave-Schwank took a committed interest in the Collection, imposed order on the material which had been stowed away in packing cases, organised an exhibition of selected items in a well-known modern gallery and also set up a small permanent exhibition in the top storey of the Hospital. The conceptual approach inherent in these initiatives displayed clear socio-psychiatric features.

In 1973 Dr. Jádi was entrusted with the care and custody of the Collection. From 1980 to 1983 a large-scale project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation made it possible to sift and salvage the material for cultural and scientific purposes. The sensitive papers and objects were conserved, restored and archivised. The scientific catalogue was put together by Dr. Brand-Claussen. Without this work it would have been impossible to use the Collection for any purpose whatsoever. It also forms the foundation for a database being compiled at present with resources from the Kulturgut Baden-Württemberg foundation.

Since 1980 the Heidelberg Prinzhorn Centre has successfully organised exhibitions in Germany and elsewhere, usually in collaboration with museums or similar cultural institutions, including the Kunsthalle in Basel, the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, the Hayward Gallery in London or the Drawing Center in New York. Alongside these major, mostly art-oriented showings there have been smaller thematic or monographic shows and several participations in larger exhibitions.

The publications of the Heidelberg Prinzhorn Centre (catalogues, books, articles) since 1980 are notable for the concern of the authors to continue in the original culture-anthropological tradition of the 1920s and cast it in a modern form. Today more than ever, an interdisciplinary approach is perceived as being absolutely essential. The aim must be to make full scientific and cultural use of the immense potential of the Collection. Ethically speaking, this is in our view the sole genuine long-term prospect for placing the Collection at the service both of psychiatric patients and humanity in general. There can be no doubt that ongoing engagement with the issues posed by the history of psychiatry are part and parcel of this; this engagement should however be free of ideology. Explicitly or implicitly, such an engagement is to be found in all the publications by the Prinzhorn Collection Centre. The concern of these publications is not however restricted to the period between 1933 and 1945. It is with indignation that the Hospital and the staff of the Centre reject the accusation levelled at them by Mr. Talbot that they are continuing the fascist tradition of Carl Schneider and attempting to pathologise the works created by the patients.

We wish to expressly emphasise that from our point of view the intentions of the BPE to regard the Prinzhorn Collection exclusively in the context of National Socialism and euthanasia is an insupportable foreshortening of the multiplicity of aspects and potential insights it harbours. We completely and utterly reject any attempt to functionalise the Collection for ideological purposes of whatever persuasion or intent.

Further arguments for the Heidelberg location
Illness and disablement in body and mind are bound up with great suffering both for the persons affected and those emotionally close to them. This suffering cannot be done away with by negating the facts. Unfortunately society takes its bearings from the so-called "norm" and tends to marginalise and devalue whatever fails to conform to that norm; this is true in all areas of life. The mentally ill are especially hard hit by this tendency. This has to do with the fact that notably in the case of psychoses the whole person and his/her very existence is affected, not just isolated aspects. Such persons develop a view of the world that deviates from the norm and is oriented exclusively to internal rather than external realities. It is this that constitutes the "hermeticism" of psychotic thinking.

The task of the physician is to decipher what at first appears indecipherable. This is the prerequisite for any kind of aid. In addition, it is the duty of physicians to offset the stigmatisation of sufferers by the attitudes they adopt towards them, both inwardly and outwardly. If we conceive of the works of the Prinzhorn Collection as documents of extreme forms of human existence, the bid to achieve a better understanding of the nature of psychosis is at the same time a bid to achieve a better understanding of the human mind in general. There is nothing in psychosis that is not profoundly human. This fact gives rise to two further grounds for the retention of the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg.

Genuine improvement of our knowledge in this area requires a species of intensive immersion which can draw at all times on everything that others have established, elaborated and thought on the subject and which is coupled with a constant and unremitting regard for fundamental ethical (as opposed to moral) values. Science thus conceived truly stands in the service of humanity. To engage in this kind of endeavour we need both a scientific forum and an "apparatus" that can only be provided in the context of a university. The Prinzhorn Collection Centre and Museum is an integral part of the University of Heidelberg. As such it has at its disposal the necessary structural prerequisites for its academic/scientific work. Shifting it into a non-university sphere would be to tantamount to irresponsibly foreshortening the potential for knowledge inherent in the Collection.

Everyday life unfortunately demonstrates that patients and their families are still subjected to social stigmatisation. This pressure from outside frequently leads to the persons affected developing feelings of inferiority. It is thus of major significance for the Psychiatric Hospital and the Prinzhorn Collection Centre that the latter can go about its cultural work (exhibitions) in the immediate vicinity of the Hospital. Patients and their relatives thus have the opportunity of gaining insight into the creative powers of their deceased fellow-sufferers and experiencing at first hand that the messages and frequently the high artistic value of these works are respected as such and given due public appreciation. The proximity to the Hospital also forces visitors from outside to penetrate into the psychiatric sphere and experience the vicinity of the patients. In this way a link is created which is all too easily lost if the works are regarded from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. But it can be said with certainty that this link would be totally forfeited if the use made of the Collection were restricted to ideological purposes alone.

Heidelberg, 3 November 1999
Dr. Inge Jádi, custodian of the Prinzhorn Collection
Prof. Dr. Christoph Mundt, director of the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Heidelberg
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Siebke, rector of the University of Heidelberg

Please address any inquiries to:
Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik,
Voßstrasse 4, D-69115 Heidelberg phone: 06221/564492, fax: 564466

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 30.04.2000




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