Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Prinzhorn Collection

From the Prinzhorn Collection - Seen here

I wrote last year about a piece of work that can be found in The Prinzhorn Collection at The University of Heidleburg. Agnes's Jacket is a remarkable object, stitched inside and out with the words of psychiatric patient, Agnes Richter held in an asylum for the insane in the 1890's. The Prinzhorn Collection is the legacy of Hans Prinzhorn who was tasked in 1919 to expand on an earlier collection of the art of the psychiatric patient at the university. By 1921 he had brought together a collection of around 5000 art works from 450 individuals.

Today the term is Outsider Art, the output of untrained artists who make their work compulsively often, not generally for the eyes of an audience, but as a way of expressing, controlling and exploring inner states of being. So often the work expresses Horror vacui - the fear of empty space - a drive to fill up and occupy the page or the object

I've been thinking about the uncomfortable contemporary dilemma in looking at these sort of works. They challenge the 'Artworld' establishment as defined by Arthur Danto and developed by George Dickie, but in so doing they become another tool of that self same institution - the very term 'Outsider Art' says it all.

These images remain immensely powerful - although the same dilemma exists even in posting such work on a blog like this - it was not made to be contextualised as 'art' or to be 'shown' as such and so the intention is very compromised. The remarkable intensity and energy of the work is extraordinary and salutary I think to the 'Artworld' artist. I guess it's similar to the post-colonial issues we wrestle with in postmodern times - we appropriate and consume with an almost psychopathic disregard for the intentions and function of the object and its origination, we re-assign and re-contextualise to support academic theories, cultural whims, issues of the zeitgeist. Does 'Artworld' dialectic actually create a vacuum - the antithesis of Horror vacui? Is that why we are hungry to see and absorb the work of the 'Outsider'? A kind of theoretical equivalent of Horror vacui - the fear of the void?

From the Prinzhorn Collection - Seen here

Johann Knopf from the Prinzhorn Collection - seen here

From rhe Prinzhorn Collection - Seen here


  1. Fascinating article. 'Horror vacui' seems to sum up perfectly so much of what I've seen of outsider work. However, it is also an extremely relevant phrase for our own contemporary world where we live with so much verbal and optical diarrhea.

  2. Thanks for visiting John! That's an interesting point actually, that addictive, neurotic drive to avoid space and silence...


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