Can anyone be wrong about art

The "crazy" women even crocheted their own hair for their art

"Crazy is female". The exhibition of works of art created by women interned in psychiatric institutions around 1900 is as provocative as its title. The ambitious project is the first to ask "about the artistic interventions of institutional patients" during this period.

57 were selected from the works of 87 patients within the world-famous art collection of psychiatric patients, which the doctor Hans Prinzhorn had collected. 170 of their works are shown in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, including letters, texts and documents. The most important concern is to focus on women who have artistically articulated their suffering.

Although women made up half of the patients in the institutions around 1900, only 20 percent of them are represented in the Prinzhorn Collection. The explanation is simple: the prison doctors - unlike the men - hardly noticed or encouraged their artistic creativity. Once women were admitted to psychiatry, they had little chance of escaping life in the institution.

As the art historian Bettina Brand-Claussen explained during a tour of the exhibition, they usually received more severe diagnoses than the male patients, such as "dementia praecox", which was equivalent to "life imprisonment". The women were mostly incapacitated and robbed of their privacy and individuality. They all wore hospital clothing, and the poorer among them were housed in halls with 30 to 40 beds. Usually they spent the day embroidering, sewing or doing other work. Only the private patients, who made up about a quarter, had better conditions.

For the first time, patient files in the archives were carefully searched and life stories were reconstructed for the exhibition.

The impressive works of art are divided into seven thematic areas: setting out rooms; Knitting, embroidery, gluing; Tangible things; Move color; Women without a mirror; Heaven and Earth; Act.

In the absence of artistic tools, the women used everything they found in their surroundings for their creative objects: prescription paper, bed linen, fabric for the institution's clothing. They even crocheted their own hair and used their own blood or excrement to paint. For example, only a few women like Else Blankenhorn, who was also highly valued by Prinzhorn, had oil paints for their paintings.

On display are, for example, expressive embroidery work full of symbols, which, in addition to the admiration for the craftsmanship of these women, arouse respect for their artistic imagination: A jewel behind glass is a self-sewn delicate jacket made of hospital linen, which is completely embroidered on the outside and inside with texts. The seamstress Agnes Richter made it in 1895. Very personal things of the patient can be deciphered on it. Impressively, meticulously written "typefaces" such as letters from Emma Hauck to her husband or the letter to the Bishop of Passau by Emma Bachmayr, dated 1909 or 1912.

The works of these women - including oil and watercolor paintings - are messages. They give insights into the longing of interned women for an orderly bourgeois life, they are an expression of suffering and also of their anger over their long existence as imprisoned and segregated. But they also show how creative art broke ground in the institution despite sanctioned forms of expression.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is an embroidered tapestry on private loan. Emma Mohr made it in the Halle-Nietleben asylum between 1872 and 1876. It is an embroidered letter of protest to the emperor: In 50 pictures she gives an insight into her former bourgeois life. Her story of suffering is recorded in embroidery on the back.

The exhibition in the Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg University Hospital, Vossstra├če 2, can be seen until September 25th. It is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m. Public tours: Wednesdays 6 p.m. and Sundays 2 p.m. as well as special tours by appointment (phone: 0 62 21-56 4739).