Insights into the Permanent Exhibition

During the Corona-related closing of our museum, we will be posting something each week about an artist from our permanent exhibition.




Self-Portrait by Paul Goesch

For his book, “Artistry of the Mentally Ill”, Hans Prinzhorn only chose works from the Heidelberg collection that had been created by patient artists without academic training. That’s why, among others, the works of Paul Goesch are missing, as he’d studied architecture in Munich, Dresden and Karlsruhe. Even before World War I, he had gained attention with mural paintings in Dresden-Laubegast. Later, as a member of the “Crystal Chain” group, the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Council for Art) and the Novembergruppe, he belonged, for a short time, to the avant-garde in Berlin. This idiosyncratic expressionist not only came up with numerous fanciful architectural designs, but he also created many drawings and gouaches. Among the works of his included in the permanent exhibition is this self-portrait. Under the Nazis, Goesch’s works were confiscated from the Kunsthalle Mannheim and from the collection of the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic (today: Prinzhorn Collection), and included in their Degenerate Art exhibition (1937 – 1941). From 1938 on, works by Goesch were included in this denunciatory exhibition, most likely representing both works by a mentally ill person as well as works by a modern artist, as the Nazis intended the comparison to disparage modern art and artists. On September 6, 1940, Paul Goesch was murdered by Nazi physicians in the old prison in Brandenburg.

Paul Goesch, self-portrait, 14.3.1923, Inv. No. 1090/224 (2014) © Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital


Untitled – An Artwork Numbering 180 File Folders, by Harald Bender

Harald Bender (1950–2014), who, since 1976, also called himself Adelhyd van Bender, entrusted the Prinzhorn Collection in the year 2000 with 180 file folders, each containing approx. 180 works on loose-leaf A4 paper, which consist of drawings (some in color), collages, and copies. In the permanent exhibition, some of these folders are displayed on a large shelf. Starting in 1977, Bender, living on welfare, continuously worked on this enormous undertaking. He considered it to be the results of scientific work, with which he intended to research the connection between the atom – which was, to him, the energy of light – and ovulation. Eventually, this “evidence” (Bender) was to be delivered to the district court in Schöneberg, where a judge had indeed already received artworks from the artist. Until his death, Bender worked tirelessly on this research project, into which he incorporated highly diverse academic disciplines. Little by little, his small one-room apartment was overgrown with folders and files. In 2014, the Cologne gallery Delmes & Zander acquired the bulk of this archive, which is continually being catalogued, and is kept in its own display room.

Images: Harald Bender, untitled, Inv.No. 8070/192 recto (2000) © Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital

Exhibition view © Francesco Futterer, kontext kommunikation


Sonja Gerstner “You came?”

Sonja Gerstner (1952-1971) was 16 years old when she first showed symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Her mother, Sybille Gerstner, founder of the famous East German fashion magazine Sibylle, later wrote about her daughter’s misfortune under a pseudonym in Flucht in die Wolken (Flight into the Clouds, 1981), detailing her three stays in the psychiatric ward (with insulin coma and electroconvulsive therapy), the increasing helplessness and social isolation. The demands of Sonja’s parents for different treatments and psychotherapeutic supervision remained unsuccessful.

Sonja Gerstner’s forced separation from her boyfriend Peter, following medical advice, was a traumatic experience for her. In the psychiatric clinic, she kept a diary, wrote poems, composed songs, and displayed a remarkable artistic talent. In her drawings and paintings, she processed her love for “Peer” and her first sexual experiences, which she was ashamed of, but also her doubts, her fears, and her suicidal thoughts. You came? Is the title of a self-portrait with her boyfriend, which she painted after receiving an electroshock treatment in 1970.

After being released from the psychiatric ward at 19, Sonja Gerstner took her life. In 2007, her mother entrusted most of her daughter’s artistic legacy – 150 works in total – to the Prinzhorn Collection on permanent loan.

Sonja Gerstner, “You came?”, 1970, Inv.No. D 8073/2 (2007) © Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital


Wilhelm Werner “The Triumph of Sterelation”

“The Triumph of Sterelation”: The inscription beneath the drawing of a bus containing a few seemingly sad passengers, upon which sits enthroned a colossal deaconess holding a syringe, a gramophone, and a Nazi flag, functions as a title for the inconspicuous little book containing 44 drawings. This book, from the Werneck sanatorium in Lower Franconia, was acquired by the Prinzhorn Collection in 2008 / 2010. It is a rare piece, because the drawings date back to the Nazi era, and unambiguously broach the issue of forced sterilization of patients, from the point of view of a patient – and this is unique. The name of the artist has been preserved by the work itself: Wilhelm Werner (1898-1940).

We don’t know much about Werner. He never married, practiced no profession, and grew up in a poorhouse. In 1919, the 21-year-old was admitted to the sanatorium with the diagnosis of “idiocy”. No records exist regarding his life in Werneck – with the exception of one: the form registering him for the Nazis’ “euthanasia” program known as “T4”. In this document, Werner is described as a “feeble-minded babbler”, who is at best moderately useful for simple tasks – a death sentence. In October 1940, the sanatorium was evacuated as part of the Nazis’ program of managed mass murder by involuntary euthanasia. 760 patients were relocated, approximately a third of whom were immediately transferred to interim transit centers or directly to extermination camps. Wilhelm Werner was one of those. He and numerous other patients were immediately taken to the gas chambers in Sonnenstein near Pirna.

Werner’s drawings have survived. The collection of his drawings in this little book tells the tale that the Werner wanted to tell: the view of a patient on one of the Nazis’ medical crimes. And in this, some 70 years after his violent death, he has succeeded.

Wilhelm Werner, untitled, 1934 / 1938, pencil on paper, Inv. Nr. 8083 (2008) fol. 25 and fol.14 © Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital Heidelberg


Josef Heinrich Grebing’s “Water Closet Paper”

“There have been essays written and printed about the immortality of the maybug, about the dangers of guns, and the debatability of Darwin’s decadence teachings. Why shouldn’t a treatise on the good and bad qualities, the existence and shortages, the origins and price increases of Water Closet Paper find acceptance and payment? […]” Excerpt from the Introduction

In the psychiatric clinic in Wiesloch, the former businessman Josef Heinrich Grebing (1879–1940) was intensely preoccupied with an everyday material, which in these weeks has again become the focus of particular concern: toilet paper. He composed a 16-page handwritten, extemporaneous essay entitled “Water Closet Paper”, in which he rigorously portrayed his opinionated observations regarding the quality and trade of this hygiene product. Here he described why this paper could in the future become, if his advice were followed, a vastly superior everyday consumer product.

Grebing chronicles in detail previous applications of every imaginable means of maintaining anal hygiene, from leaves of plants, sponges with vinegar, fabric scraps, to leftover paper, newspaper, book pages or crepe paper, culminating in opiate-soaked cotton balls, that were intended to disinfect and soothe. In addition to these historical digressions, he calculated the economic gains—being the businessman he was—that the entire population of 60 million Germans at the time could expect from the qualitative improvement of this rolled product in daily use. Unfortunately, the author gets bogged down in oversentimental details during this fundamental analysis towards the end, when he describes the affronts suffered to his business expertise. In any case, the incredible demand for toilet paper during the first lockdown would have been, for Grebing, something he couldn’t have imagined, not even in his wildest dreams.

More Information in Our New Guide to the Collection

In mid-November, our new guide to the collection will be published, presenting the works and artists included in our permanent exhibition. The book can be purchased in our museum shop, and is the perfect way to prepare for your next visit to the Prinzhorn Collection.

Josef Heinrich Grebing, “Water Closet Paper”, around 1908, Inv. No. 624 / 58 (2012) © Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital Heidelberg