About the Prinzhorn Collection

The original collection

The Prinzhorn Collection museum is dedicated to art created by men and women with mental disorders. The unique body of the original collection known worldwide is made up of approximately 6,000 works, all created by inmates of psychiatric institutions between 1840 and 1940. It ranges from water-colours, drawings, paintings and sculptures to textile works and texts. The major part of it was collected while art historian and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933) worked as assistant physician at the Psychiatric Hospital of Heidelberg University. Among the most famous artists and authors whose works are held include count Else Blankenhorn, Franz Karl Bühler, Karl Genzel, Paul Goesch, Emma Hauck, August Klett, August Natterer, Agnes Richter, Joseph Schneller, Barbara Suckfüll and Adolf Wölfli.

The collection’s history

Between 1919 and 1921, circulars were sent to psychiatric institutions in German speaking countries by Hans Prinzhorn and Karl Willmanns, then Head of the Psychiatric University Hospital. The artistic works of patients they asked for were destined for the creation of a museum of psychopathological art.

In 1922, Prinzhorn published his richly-illustrated publication “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” based on the collection. Received enthusiastically by the art scene of his time, it immediately became “the Bible of the Surrealists”. The book was edited many times and translated into various languages. To this day, it remains a classic.

In 1938, Carl Schneider, Head of the Psychiatric University Hospital, ordered that works of the collection be sent to the Nazi touring exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”). The works by the mentally ill were exploited as references to imply the pathological nature of Modern art.

Fallen into oblivion after World War II, the Prinzhorn Collection was rediscovered by Harald Szeemann in 1963 and a selection was exhibited in Kunsthalle Bern. Since then, national and international exhibitions continue to highlight the collection.

In 2001, in a former lecture hall of the Neurological Department within the Centre for Psychosocial Medicine, the museum for the Prinzhorn Collection was inaugurated.


The collection nowadays

Since 1980, the collection has been grown considerably. About 20,000 works account for its modern stock. Artists and authors represented are Friedrich Boss, Gudrun Biersky, Vanda Vieira-Schmidt, Sonja Gerstner, Alfred Stief and Dietrich Orth, to name a few. An extension is planned to house and display a permanent exhibition as well as new entries.


The collection’s activities: exhibitions and scientific research

The main intention of the museum is to dissolve the stigma of mental illness. Exhibitions are changed three to four times a year. By contextualizing and interpreting the artistic works of persons who have suffered mental disorders and subsequent social deprivation, the Prinzhorn Collection seeks to contribute to their inclusion in society. Being part of the Heidelberg University Hospital, the museum’s activities also extend to scientific research in the fields of the artists’ fate, their works as well as the overriding questions behind them. Scientists, artists and other interested persons will hence be granted access to the museum’s archives on request. Members of the academic staff are happy to answer questions and provide further information.

Image: Prinzhorn Collection © Atelier Altenkirchen