Franz Kleber’s Book

Writings in the Prinzhorn Collection
A considerable part of the works kept in the Prinzhorn Collection contain text, either alone or in connection with images. Psychiatrists have repeatedly designated the combination of the two—text and image—as characteristic of art by psychiatric patients. However, the combination of text and image can also be explained by the fact that the authors, most of whom were not trained artists, chose to rely upon neither medium alone to convey their message.

Franz Kleber (1843–1908)
In our new exhibition, “Ein mehrfacher Millionenwerth“ (“Worth More Than Many Millions”), there are 56 books and journals on display. Among these, the hand-made book by the Regensburg asylum patient Franz Kleber stands out. Kleber worked on this painstakingly detailed book from 1898 until his death. The peddler of books, born to an unmarried mother, was committed to the municipal mental asylum in 1890, after having caused a stir in the St. Michael’s church in Munich. He was later transferred to a psychiatric institution in Regensburg. Kleber suffered from hallucinations, heard voices, and believed himself to be in an establishment for “purification of the soul”. In Kleber’s mind, the voices of his mother, King Ludwig and his grandfather argued over who his father was. In the asylum, he began writing prayers, and invented machines, including a perpetual motion machine. Later, he created many useful objects out of found materials.

A 60-page book from newspaper snippets
For his book, Kleber began by producing pages from the margins of newspapers. He then placed his own texts onto these, using snippets from the daily newspapers. He would excerpt paragraphs, but also single words or even single letters, re-arranging them to create his own material. As he obviously didn’t use scissors, each snippet was torn from the newspaper, and, since he was not allowed to use paste or glue, he used bread softened with saliva. The meticulous work was exacerbated by the fact that Kleber defiantly spelled words his own way, adding an ‘e’ after every umlaut.

Beyond the excerpted paragraphs, the text itself is difficult to comprehend. In certain sections, it deals with topics such as the death penalty or madness. More importantly, the book is a proclamation: undoubtedly, Kleber’s choice to create a “printed book” was itself an expression of his desire to be taken seriously, beyond the walls of the psychiatric institution.

Image: Franz Kleber, handmade book, between 1899–1906, cardboard, newspaper, yarn, Inv. No. 4903 © Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital