First published: Winter 2003
The ‘madman’ is an important figure in the German Expressionism of the early twentieth century. Expressionist artists depicted the ‘madman’ (and ‘madwomen’) in the paintings and drawings of the period, and were fascinated by the artwork of asylum patients. And some interned artists can be seen as creating art in an ‘Expressionist’ style.
Artistic interest in asylum patients was partly a response to the rise in the numbers of patients from the end of the 19th century. Families could no longer afford to care for their ill relatives.
Asylums were used as a solution to the growing problem of poverty: more people on the borders of society were becoming subject to mental care. Whereas Alfred Kubin (1877–1959) in his drawing The Asylum (1910) illustrates the fantasy of the ‘madman’s garden’, a theme popular since the early 19th century, in a 1914 painting Erich Heckel (1883–1970) reflects the reality of the institutions of his time.
His Blind Madmen Eating (1914), wear the blue uniform of poor patients of the Maison de Santé in Berlin-Schoeneberg. Obsessively concentrating on their meal in an empty, cold space, they are far from the picturesque lunatics that Kubin depicted.