A fascinating new book details how a group of German asylum patients who were instrumental in the modernist art movement ‘found themselves on a collision course with the Nazi government’.
The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by British author Charlie English tells the story of the mentally ill artists whose work was collected by the psychiatrist Hans Prizehorn in the aftermath of the First World War – only to later be murdered because of Hitler’s hateful ideology.
He argues that while exploring art in the context of National Socialism may appear ‘counterproductive or distasteful’, Hitler’s mass murder programmes and his views on art were ‘intimately connected’ by pseudoscientific theories about race and ‘degeneracy’.
Rejected from art school in his youth, Hitler saw the modernist art movement, and psychiatrists’ interest in madness, as a threat conjured up by Jews and Bolsheviks to destroy German values.
Later his rage against ‘degenerate’ art would develop into his first mass-murder programme, killing hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill and disabled people, along with dozens of Prizehorn artists.
A new book tells the story of the mentally ill artists whose work was collected by the psychiatrist Hans Prizehorn in the aftermath of the First World War. Those artists included Franz Karl Bühler, an esteemed blacksmith and painter who was admitted to the Emmendingen Medical and Care Institution in 1900
In the aftermath of the First World War, Prizehorn, who had already trained as a medical doctor and served as an Army surgeon, enrolled at University of Heidelberg Psychiatric University.
Feeling the ‘deepest nihilism’ for all culture following the war, the psychiatrist threw himself into his work, determined to discover the ‘real purpose of life’ and set out to examine the works of the mentally ill.
Initially he wrote to the Heidelberg clinic, where he received a few dozen pieces before writing to various sanatoriums around Germany asking for work from ‘schizophrenic and paranoid patients’.
When word spread of the request, a rich body of material made up of drawings, paintings, music, collage, sculptures made from old bread or wooden furniture came flooding in from all over Europe.
The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English details how a group of German asylum patients who were instrumental in the modernist art movement ‘found themselves on a collision course with the Nazi government
One painting by paranoid schizophrenic artist Franz Bühler, titled The Choking Angel, was compared to that of Albrecht Dürer, while the likes of Max Ernest, Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee revered the collection.
In 1922 Hans Prinzhorn released his book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, making ripples in the art world by viewing art created by psychiatric patients not as a form of diagnosis, but as an expression of their soul.
‘The schizophrenic postwar age required a schizophrenic postwar art, he writes, adding that ‘madness had never been in such vogue.’
As Prinzhorn’s book was becoming part of the German cultural landscape, Adolf Hitler was incarcerated in a Bavarian prison for his part in the Beer Hall putsch of 1923.
At this time, Hitler had failed twice to be accepted to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, with teachers convinced his conventional style was more suited to architecture than painting.
Having served in the First World War, selling copies of postcards and his failed attempt at overthrowing the Weimar Republic had landed Hitler in prison.
Here he penned his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, where he outlined his aim to connect ‘national humiliation’ of losing the First World War to ‘his awakening as artist-Führer’.
Goebbels would later state that Hitler ‘came from architecture and painting, and only nameless misfortune of the German people, which began on November 9, 1918, called him into politics’.
Rejected from art school in his youth, Adolf Hitler saw the modernist art movement, and psychiatrists’ interest in madness as a threat – conjured up by Jews and Bolsheviks to destroy German values
In Mein Kampf, he railed against ‘half-wits and scoundrels’ in modern art movements who had sullied the ‘healthy artistic feeling’ of the traditional painters he loved.
Upon his release from prison, he used his knowledge on art to mingle in sophisticated circles and further his political career, and provided a connection to the public – many of whom also had a distaste for avant-garde artwork.
He would routinely tell his audiences on his ascent to power that Germans would be ‘judged by the quality of their cultural achievements and their monuments, just as great civilizations of the past were judged by theirs’.
His critique of modernism was based on pseudoscience, theories from the likes of Arthur de Gobineau and Max Nordau, that ‘genetic denigration and Jewish pollution’ was threatening the ‘pure and glorious’ Germans.
He held the avant-garde art movement’s interest in the insane as ‘evidence of degeneration in action’.
In the 1920s Hitler’s arguments remained on the fringe of society as Germany enjoyed the Golden Twenties, enjoying the short five-year period of financial stability between the end of hyperinflation and the Wall Street Crash.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Prizehorn (pictured) enrolled at University of Heidelberg Psychiatric University where he started collecting the art of mentally ill artists
But as political weather changed due to the 1929 financial crisis, so did the zeitgeist of the time – with attitudes towards the Prizehorn’s collection and other aspects of liberated Germany an ‘alarming, alien threat to the fragile fabric of the defeated nation’.
Hitler capitalised on this fear and began dubbing Weimar’s decadence and liberal thinking as evidence of degeneracy and ‘from every platform stoked a culture war, exploiting the widespread antipathy Germans felt for modernity and modernism’.
He railed against Jewish-Bolshevik art and modernisms love for the subject of madness within art was central to his political campaign throughout his run up to power.
In 1929, he created the Combat League for German Culture – whose main aim was ‘defend natural German values in the midst of today’s cultural decline’ and declare war on the ‘swamp culture’ of Weimar Germany.
Local branches across Germany attacked museums and disgraced their directors. They believed modern art was evidence Nordic blood was being tainted by ‘inferior components’ such as Jews.
In 1930, three years before rising to power, the Nazi’s undertook their first ‘art purge’ when Wilhelm Frick, a Nazi, became Minister for Culture and Education in the state of Thuringia.
By his order, 70 mostly Expressionist paintings were removed from the permanent exhibition of the Weimar Schlossmuseum.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, 2000 artists left Germany. In the same year Prinzhorn died of typhus in Munich.
In 1933, Hitler ordered an exhibition of ‘cultural bolshevism’ was displayed for the sole purpose of displaying ‘shameful art’ – which included both Prizehorn artists and a portrait of a rabbi by Chagall, which was later paraded round town in a procession ‘reminiscent of medieval pillory’.
One painting by paranoid schizophrenic artist Franz Bühler, titled The Choking Angel (pictured) was compared to that of Albrecht Dürer – while the likes of Max Ernest, Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee revered the collection
Pictured, Franz Karl Bühler’s self portrait. Among other images Prinzhorn featured in is gallery were added to his collection under the pseudonym Franz Pohl
The same year he enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, allowing 400 patients who suffered from a list of alleged genetic disorders to be sterilized.
He also introduced legislation to ensure that artists used ‘natural’ colours in their work. Art should be ‘heroic, racially pure, and free from dirty, cosmopolitain modernism’.
In pursuit of racially pure art, far away from the madness-inspired avant-garde modernists, Hitler commissioned a new gallery to be constructed in Munich.
1937, a watershed moment came for National Socialists when Hitler ordered the confiscation of all disruptive art from Germany’s galleries – including a number of pieces by the Prinzhorn artists.
Marc Chagall and Otto Dix featured alongside Prinzhorn artists in the Degenerate Art Exhibition – which saw confiscated art displayed in contrast to the works in the Great German Art Exhibition to demonstrate the so-called cultural disintegration caused by modernists.
Klee, Chagall, Dalí and Ernst and Oskar Kokoschka used their reputations to escape Germany for Switzerland or US while modernists Dix and Schlemmer went into hiding in Germany.
This crayon drawing from the collection is titled The Avenging Angel. It was one of Franz Karl Bühler’s many works included in the collection
Pictured, Witch’s Head by August Natterer, 1915. She was one of the ‘schizophrenic masters’ of artistry profiled by Hans Prinzhorn in Artistry of the Mentally Ill
While artists were on the run all over Europe, rumours of ‘mercy killings’ in German asylums began circulating among medical staff all over the country.
In 1939, two years after modernist art had been ‘eradicated’ from Nazi Germany, Hitler euthanised because of his disability for the first time, marking the start of a horrific mass murder campaign.
In the small village of Pomßen, a farmer and his wife gave birth to a severely disabled baby boy called Gerhard Kretschmar. He was blind and was missing parts of his limbs.
His father asked their doctor to give the boy a ‘peaceful death’ and after being told this was illegal, decided to write to Hitler to grant them a lawful euthanising of their son. His parents were thought to be dedicated National Socialists.
Hitler send his personal physician to investigate – soon after declaring that the baby should die. He was administered with a lethal dose of phenobarbital on July 25, 1939 and became the first to die at the hands of Nazi state killing.
He ordered the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) handle any similar requests while the Nazis put together a secret group working on child euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill.
The KdF killed by overdose or starvation in clinics set up around the Reich and German. Some 6,000 children died as a result of these methods.
Soon, the SS were enlisted to enforce a wider programme was set out, setting up fifty steel cylinders of carbon monoxide to gas victims in Grafeneck Castle – a home for disabled children.
Like many other inmates of the nursing and sanctuaries, Franz Karl Bühler was brought to Grafeneck in 1940 as part of the systematic killing of ‘unworthy life’ and murdered by carbon monoxide
The programme, which would later be known as Aktion t4, moved to require the necessary permissions to begin, and the Reich Working Party for Mental Asylums began collating the names of their potential victims.
Doctors were forced to report all those who were not employed to work and suffered from; schizophrenia, epilepsy, senile dementia, therapy resistant paralysis, Huntington’s or other incurable neurological states, Encephalititis and ‘feeblemindedness of any cause’.
Soon the programme started to take place in ‘hospitals’ where possessions were harvested in between their deaths and their death certificates were delayed to allow the victim’s living expenses to be collected from local authorities.
Aktion T4 met their target of killing 70,000 mentally ill people, with an estimated 130,000 dead due to neglect or mistreatment, and the programme provided Hitler with the model he would later use in The Final Solution.
The author estimates that at least 30 Prinzhorn artists were murdered between 1939 and 1941, with esteemed painter Bühler among the first to be killed.
The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Art and Hitler’s First Mass-Murder Programme is available in hardback for £20, HarperCollins