First published: Summer 2010
The group around André Breton looked at the art made in institutions in a different way than the German Expressionists before the First World War. Beyond national differences in the interpretation of psychiatric problems, and the knowledge that specific artists such as André Breton and Max Ernst had of psychiatry, what is especially important is the experience of the madness of the First World War, which not only politicised the Surrealists but also led them to fundamentally interrogate concepts of rationality and reason.
Much more radically than the Expressionists, they took the fous as an example and posited what they understood of their thinking, actions and creativity against the traditional status quo – of which, to them, psychiatrists were excellent representatives. What, however, did the Surrealists know of ‘the art of the insane’? Today, it is commonplace to call Hans Prinzhorn’s book Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) (1922) the ‘Surrealist’s Bible’. But what status did the book have in Paris at the start of the 1920s?
For France, it was not the first independent writing on the subject. In 1907 the psychiatrist Paul Meunier, under the pseudonym of Marcel Rejá, brought out his book L’Art Chez les Fous, which already emphasised the aesthetic qualities of different types of works of asylum art. It was read by art enthusiasts and surely also by artists, but it was not notably influential. This may have been due to historical circumstances, to the presumably small print run and probably also to the insignificant appearance of this paperback edition with 17 black and white illustrations. In contrast, the appearance of Artistry of the Mentally Ill revealed the fact that for the author the aesthetic rather than the medical elements were primary. With roughly 350 pages in 10 x 8.5 inch format, bound in black linen with white embossed lettering, the publication was reminiscent of an art book. The quality of the paper and the 187 illustrations, of which 20 were in colour, made this even more apparent. Up to that point, no publication had shown so many works of this kind or in such quality. Artistry of the Mentally Ill made this subject matter visible for the first time.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #69