Archive for the ‘ Expositions ’ Category

Exhibit Review – X-Rays of the Soul: Rorschach and the Projective Test, Harvard University (through June 30).

Jeremy Blatter

“X-Rays of the Soul: Rorschach and the Projective Test,” curated by Marla Eby, Peter Galison, and Rebecca Lemov, is the most recent exhibit to open at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments located in the Science Center at Harvard University. The exhibit explores the history of the projective test, not only as a diagnostic tool in clinical psychology and psychiatry, but as a widely employed technique in anthropological research and as an important meme and metaphor in popular culture.

Among the many provocative artistic interventions found in this exhibit are four large lenticular reproductions of Rorschach cards. By moving to either side of each lenticular print different features and emphases in the inkblots are revealed. The effect is that as you move from left to right it is as if the inkblot itself is revealing a range of potential interpretations that could land you anywhere along the psychiatric spectrum.

By dedicating one side of the exhibit to inkblot tests and the other to tests like the TAT (Thematic Apperception Test), which rely on more literal and narrative-driven modes of representation, the exhibit highlights two very different approaches to rendering the kind of controlled ambiguity that is the earmark of most projective testing techniques. However, many of the most interesting objects on display are precisely those testing materials which reveal the breakdown of this putatively pure ambiguity. For example, Charles Thompson’s “African American Thematic Apperception Test” (1949) and the anthropological adaptations of the TAT for Tahitians force us to more carefully consider the place of race and culture in the design and practice of projective testing.

“X-Rays of the Soul” is open 9-5:00PM daily in the Science Center at Harvard University and closes June 30.

Jeremy Blatter is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University. His research focuses on the history of psychology and the social sciences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as well as the intersection of science and visual culture (particularly in the form of film, photography, architecture, advertising, and industrial design). In his dissertation “The Psychotechnics of Everyday Life: Hugo Münsterberg and the Politics of Applied Psychology, 1892-1929,” Jeremy explores the early years of applied psychology and psychotechnics.

Exhibit review – “In memory of the children. Pediatrics and crimes against children in the Nazi period.” Topography of Terror Documentation Center, Berlin, 18 January – 20 May 2012

By Stephanie Neuner

In recent years considerable research has been conducted on children as victims of the “euthanasia” crimes in Nazi Germany. Remarkable results have been achieved in naming perpetrators, tracing back life stories of victims, and unveiling structures and procedures of the patients’ murder. It is clear by now that more than 10.000 children and adolescents – mainly coming from the lower and middle class[i] – were killed actively or passively within the framework of “euthanasia”. The German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine initiated the temporary exhibition “In memory of the children” presently shown at the Topography of Terror Documentation Center to document these crimes according to the current state of historical research, and equally importantly, to commemorate the victims.

Entering the exhibition space the visitor instantly becomes aware of a large-sized illustrated panel that divides the venue into two sections. Close-up photographs portray under-age inmates of a mental asylum on the one side and physicians being accused of their crimes after 1945 on the other side. The installation might not have explicitly been planned as an introduction – but it nevertheless serves quite well as such. Looking at the photographs one thought immediately crosses the viewer’s mind: They are foremost about individuals and their scope of action – the responsibility of the perpetrators and the helplessness of those children who were left completely unprotected. This first impression is strongly confirmed by historical facts as soon as one takes one’s eyes off this central scene and delves into the exhibition’s actual contents. Here,   the visitor is confronted with the suffering and the death of children, and with the physicians’ massive violation of ethical boundaries in their treatment of the boys and girls entrusted to their care.

As detailed biographical information and medical data are presented one gets very close to the children’s individual fates. One case the exhibition documents in exemplary fashion is that of Guenther, who was ten years old when he was gassed within the framework of the centralized “euthanasia” program “T4”. Nazi welfare services considered his family “a-social” and “hereditarily defective”, and the boy was therefore placed in foster care. Against his parents’ explicit will, he was committed to mental asylums in Potsdam and Georden (Brandenburg). In 1940 it was decided at the Berlin “T4 Headquarters” to murder him. Guenther’s case and the motivation for his murder are elucidated in the catalogue by Petra Fuchs[ii]. Referring to essential results of historical research, she points out that the decision to kill the boy was not only taken on grounds of the contemporary diagnosis “imbecility” but mainly due to a negative prognosis regarding his capacity to be educated and to support himself. It was thus predominantly the assumed degree of future social and financial dependence of the child that motivated his killing.

The “T4 Action” was only one of several institutional settings where medical crimes against children took place. Besides the killing of physically and mentally handicapped children within this framework of centralized “euthanasia”, hundreds of the under-aged died in pediatric and psychiatric sections of hospitals through the denial of treatment, deliberate starvation, or deadly injections. They were sent to especially established “Children’s Departments” at clinics where they were medically observed and tested, before they were killed primarily through the sedatives Luminal or Bromural. As exemplified by the “Research Facility” at the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Department, those “child subjects” (“Forschungskinder”) were murdered in order to put their corpses at the disposal  of brain research projects.[iii] Furthermore, the exhibition focuses on medical experiments on epidemic jaundice and TB in concentration camps, which principally offered “extra-legal space”[iv] for ethically uninhibited medical research on their prisoners. As the authors of the catalogue underline, these tests “should not be seen as pseudo-medical experiments, since most of them corresponded in terms of their purposes and methods to the state of scientific practice at that time”.[v] In this context, the exhibition documents the case of four-year-old Wolfgang who was infected with tuberculosis pathogens in the concentration camp Neuengamme southeast of Hamburg. His large-sized medical chart is presented on a table-like case that enables the visitor to study it in detail, while explanations are given in order to understand the curves with their peaks and valleys. Now the visitor himself turns into an observer of parameters like temperature, medication, food intake and defecation. This interactive module allows us to get in touch with both the “doctors’ gaze” (M. Foucault) and the suffering of the four-year-old boy. It represents an educational highlight of this exhibition.

Besides touchscreens on “Hereditary Teaching and Racial Science” and the geographical spread of “Special Pediatric Sections” throughout Nazi Germany, the exhibition tries to communicate its themes primarily through reproduced documents and photographs mounted on horizontal panels. This form of presentation matches the design of the permanent exhibition of the document center. Considering the venue’s topic it is certainly appropriate to abstain from any effect-seeking scenography and choose an unobtrusive design. However, the exhibition’s design would have benefited from more visual elements that would help to identify key aspects or make it easier to follow the various threads of the exhibition. Considering the great number of international visitors to the document center it is a real pity that documents such as patient records are often not translated into English – not even in extracts. Generally, the exhibition aims at mediating the enormous amount of knowledge that has been researched within the last years from a primarily biographical perspective. This approach is combined both with explanation on organizational processes within the context of Nazi health policy and information on the entanglement of contemporary medical science with eugenic thinking and racial ideology. Taking into account the rather small space that is offered to the temporary venue, the task of both documenting the topic in its broad diversity and of communicating all this to the visitor is of course very ambitious.

As is to be expected, the exhibition leaves the visitor with lots of questions, which the excellent catalogue, edited by Thomas Beddies, attempts to provide answers for.[vi] It includes five valuable articles (with English translation) written by historians who are known as specialists in the field of “euthanasia” crimes in Nazi Germany. The children’s fates become again manifest in the catalogue, especially since the authors reflect individual stories from the deeply diverse perspectives of parents, doctors and attendants. They thus draw a very coherent picture of the particular cases.

It is the most painful and finally lethal experience of 4-year old Wolfgang that sticks in my mind after I have left the exhibition. The victim’s stories are very moving and their suffering stands in harsh contrast to the absence of empathy on the side of the pediatricians who participated in the medical crimes in Nazi Germany.

Stephanie Neuner is a historian currently involved into a research project at the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University Wuerzburg, Germany. Before she had worked several years for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Germany. She studied history and politics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and Edinburgh University. One of her main research interests focus on the cultural history of psychiatry. Her recently published book, Politik und Psychiatrie. Die staatliche Versorgung psychisch Kriegsbeschädigter in Deutschland 1920-39 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2011) deals with compensation policies towards psychologically disabled veterans of WWI in the Weimar Republic and the Nazi State.

[i] S. Topp, “The murder of handicapped children and youth in the Reich Committee Procedure (1939-1945)”, in Im Gedenken der Kinder – Die Kinderärzte und die Verbrechen an Kindern in der NS-Zeit/In memory of the children – Pediatricians and crimes against children in the Nazi period, exhibition catalogue, ed. by T. Beddies on behalf of the German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (DGKJ) (Berlin 2012), p. 13-19, here p. 18.
[ii] P. Fuchs, ”Action T4” – Children and youth as victims of the Nazi’s centralized “euthanasia” program (1940/41), in ibid., p. 20-26.
[iii] See M. Rotzoll, V. Roelcke, G. Hohendorf, “Deadly experiments on children – Carl Schneider’s “Research Facility” at the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Department (1943/44)”, in ibid., p. 35-42.
[iv] A. Ley, ”Children as victims of medical experiments in concentration camps, in ibid., p. 43-52, here p. 51.
[v] Ibid., p.44
[vi] See note 1.

Article: The Musée de la folie

The most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Collections features an article by Allison Morehead – “The Musée de la folie: Collecting and exhibiting chez les fous” – reconsidering accepted wisdom about the Musée de la folie, which opened on the outskirts of Paris in 1905.

Abstract: The 1905 opening of Dr Auguste Marie’s Musée de la folie, at the Villejuif Asylum on the outskirts of Paris, has long been viewed as a key moment in the early history of the art of the insane. But surprisingly little is known about the museum and its collection. This article argues that the Musée de la folie was in fact a largely imaginary entity that intersected both with the asylum itself and with a planned Musée rétrospectif psychiatrique. Exploring the various discourses constructed through Marie’s collection and through similar collections and museum projects across Europe permits not only a critique of the teleological narrative usually told about the discovery of the art of the insane, but also provides a richer understanding of the psychiatric and popular contexts in which Marie’s heterogeneous collection, including the art works of his patients, was originally gathered, represented and consumed.

Review: Paris-Exposition : Sous le vent de l’Art Brut

Montrer la douleur, réenchanter le monde : l’art des « fous » et d’autres « primitifs » à la Halle Saint Pierre (Paris)

Au rez-de-chaussée de la Halle Saint Pierre, une femme-poisson aux pieds de tête de mouton nous regarde des ses cinq yeux bleus grand ouverts. L’auteur de ce portrait est un des 49 créateurs représentés dans l’exposition « Sous le vent de l’art brut », qui rassemble une petite partie de la collection de Charlotte Zander, abritée au Château de Bönningheim. Sava Sekulic (1902-1989), maçon croate devenu une des figures les plus respectées dans les cercles internationaux de l’art naïf, nous montre des êtres en pleine métamorphose, figures à la fois tristes et fantastiques qu’on dirait avoir posé un moment devant le peintre avant de continuer leur transformation invraisemblable. C’est notamment le cas de cet homme-femme aux bras de pieuvre sous lequel on lit « Krake se transforme en femme et s’autodétruit » (1974) (voir figure). Si cette image peut évoquer la métamorphose aux mille bras solaires du président Schreber, contrairement aux mémoires du « névroptahe » le plus célèbre de l’histoire de la psychiatrie, elle ne prétend pas représenter une expérience subjective. C’est donc bien le fil de l’imaginaire – de notre imaginaire, bien entendu – qui semble constituer le principe de regroupement des œuvres de cet artiste et d’autres « naïfs » avec celles des créateurs présentés au titre de malades mentaux. Il y a ici déjà de quoi intéresser les historiens et anthropologues de la psychiatrie et de la maladie mentale, mais non moins les sociologues de « nos » pratiques culturelles.

Cet « art brut » qu’on nous présente c’est, bien sûr, le coup de pinceau qui ne se détachera jamais de son geste, violent ou obsessionnel et calligraphique, mais aussi les personnages amphibies d’une quelconque mythologie privée. C’est le désespoir du cri étouffé, se déployant en traits de crayon autour des yeux, et le monde spectral des silhouettes trouées ; c’est l’excès décoratif d’un objet détaché et inerte, et celui du frontispice d’un temple de marbre qui manque peut-être de dieux et d’autel ; c’est la démesure du rêve devenu un peu trop réel (ou l’inverse), et un désir si fort qu’il renverse le corps. C’est l’envers du sexe. C’est la ville serrée, minutieusement chaotique, de la masse. Ou tout simplement les bateaux à vapeur promis de l’enfance qui se déchainent sur le papier, mus par un cataclysme insaisissable. Lieux d’expression, parfois d’inscription, d’une souffrance, ou d’un désir de réenchanter le monde, ces travaux ont pourtant des mobiles variés. Certains cherchent à communiquer des visions intérieures, la peinture s’assumant comme acte mystique (Robert Saint-Brice ; 1898-1973 ; Scottie Wilson, 1888-1972; Séraphine de Senlis, 1864-1942 ; Fleury-Joseph Crepin, 1875-1948 ; Madge Gill, 1882-1961) ; d’autres construisent des villes imaginaires (Adolf Wölfli, 1864-1930 ; Willem Van Genk, 1927-2005 ; Préfète Duffaut, 1923-) ou des langages secrets (Auguste Walla, 1936-2001). D’autres encore cherchent à montrer des douleurs (Rosemarie Koczy, 1939-2007 ; Michel Nedjar, 1947-) ; mettent en scène des peuplades désincarnées (Carlo Zinelli, 1916-1974 ; Oswald Tschirtner, 1920-2007), ou analysent des désirs ingérables (Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, 1892-1982).

Il s’agit, en général, d’une production de gens très pauvres, ayant collectionné des petits métiers le long de leur vies anonymes, ainsi que des séjours en maisons correctionnelles et dans des hôpitaux psychiatriques. Ces gens n’étaient pas censés prétendre faire de l’art, vu leur instruction (souvent des illettrés), leur sexe (un nombre considérable de femmes) et leur âge (pas rarement, des vieux). D’ailleurs – nous dit-on – ils n’ont jamais prétendu faire de l’art, et encore moins la vendre à bon prix. C’est pour tout cela, d’ailleurs, que c’est bien de l’« art brut ». Proposé par Jean Dubuffet, le concept vise à regrouper les expressions plastiques des créateurs en marge des institutions d’apprentissage artistique, de leurs codes et des circuits marchands. Bref, le vent de l’art brut rassemble les créateurs ne pouvant pas se construire une « position d’artiste », comme on lit dans l’introduction du catalogue signée par Jean-Louis Lanoux. Se référent à une création éminemment spontanée et pulsionnelle, « art brut » serait ainsi l’étiquette des arts sans étiquette. Il comprendrait, en quelque sorte, de l’art qui vaut « par sa valeur intrinsèque », comme on lit dans un autre texte d’introduction du catalogue (signée par Martine Lusardy). Des œuvres irréductibles à des codes esthétiques partagés, absolues dans leur singularité, ces travaux nous montreraient, néanmoins, selon le même Lanoux, que « n’en déplaise à ceux de ses partisans [de l’art brut] qui voudraient y voir avant tout un symbole de révolte contre l’ordre social ou un signe de renouveau métaphysique, force est de constater que l’art brut – du moins dans son expression la plus radicale – fait surtout preuve de soumission à des forces qui nous dépassent et qui nous gouvernent. (p. 16) » Or, sans nécessairement prendre le parti du mouvement de Dubuffet et de ses divers avatars – art naïf, médiumnique, psychopathologique, surréaliste – dont le discours de l’authenticité retrouvée dans un art « non culturel » me parait équivoque, force est plutôt de constater que ces travaux expriment soit des souffrances qui nous sont facilement reconnaissables, et donc sans doute des souffrances sociales, soit des désirs de libération à coloration métaphysique et religieuse, parfois politique. Libérer le monde d’un réel de plomb qui voile et écrase un essentiel, c’est dans ces cas le mot d’ordre. « Dieu m’a donné mission de créer une œuvre pour les gens simples et reconnaissants de sa puissance et de sa création. Des gens qui croient en l’existence de l’Etre suprême. Un Dieu que l’on prie et dont la création devient visible, à travers mes dessins », écrit une des artistes exposées, Margarethe Held (1894-1981) (cité in « Sous le vent de l’art brut… », p. 72). Que les unes et les autres sont difficilement appropriables dans le cadre d’une révolution ou d’une philosophie politique c’est une évidence, mais, compte tenu des conditions sociales et biographiques de production de ces œuvres, on ne peut pas nier leur qualité d’expression de révolte contre un ordre social ressenti comme oppressant. Elles parlent, avant tout, des personnes qui les ont produit. Et, puisque ce n’est pas exactement le vent qui nous apporte ces travaux, ils parlent aussi un peu de « nous », qui les rassemblons et allons les voir au musée. Mais, tout en faisant semblant de se référer à des univers autres, ces artistes portent un regard, sinon sur un autre monde possible, sans doute sur notre monde commun.

Exposition « Sous le vent de l’art brut ». Collection Charlotte Zander, Halle Saint Pierre, Musée d’Art Brut, Paris. Du 17 janvier au 26 aout 2011. Ouvrage cité : « Sous le vent de l’art brut », catalogue de l’exposition, Paris, 2010.

Tiago Pires Marques

Tiago Pires Marques is a postdoctoral fellow at CERMES3, Paris-Descartes University (Paris) and at the CEHR (Portuguese Catholic University). After focusing on the history of prisons, criminology, and forensic psychiatry, his research has been extended to the history and anthropology of psychiatry and mental illness. His main ongoing research project deals with the religious references common in psychotic experiences. His latest publication, as editor and co-author, is the issue “Michel de Certeau et l’anthropologie historique de la modernité” of the journal Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines (n. 23, 2011).

High Society is high impact and high interest

by Katy Barrett

I am writing this review while drinking a cup of coffee in the café of the Wellcome Collection. I would never think of myself as a ‘drug user,’ but the current exhibition High Society reminds us that caffeine is just one of the mind-altering substances which are prevalent in all human societies.

From an opening case of evocative objects – including a Starbucks cup and a Coke can – that draws on the wealth of the Wellcome’s own collections, the exhibition marshals items from ancient Assyrian cuneiform tablets to modern art installations by Richard Hamilton and Keith Coventry to investigate the wide range of ways in which we get ‘high.’ It draws on ceramics, natural specimens, books, prints, paintings, photographs; political advertising, scientific experiments, art installations, interviews to show just how ancient and varied human drug use is. It considers the boundaries between public and private, social and anti-social, legal and illegal. I, in fact, use the term ‘drug’ with trepidation, in case it lead my readers to a culturally-induced ‘pejorative’ understanding of the term which this exhibition by no means endorses.

The opening section ‘A Universal Impulse’ highlights this problem and shows the varying types and functions of drugs in different cultures, considering religious or medical use, and the modern clash between these and international law. Next, ‘From Apothecary to Laboratory’ considers the development from ancient medical plants to modern laboratory drugs and the local and international paths of these. Connected is ‘The Drugs Trade’ section, which reminds us of the ever-present role of British imperial trade and expansion in so much world history, and the importance of the opium trade from India to China in the nineteenth century.

The section on ‘Self-Experimentation’ investigates how scientists and artists have sought to understand what drugs do to the human consciousness and why this varies between individuals; how essentially the results evade complete scientific explanation. The installation by Brion Gysin invites visitors to give themselves a hallucinatory experience. ‘Collective Intoxication’ then considers how drug use is part of social interaction, using and contrasting Western attitudes to more ‘ritualistic’ drug use in other cultures. The final section considers whether drug use is ‘A sin, a crime, a vice, or a disease?’ highlighting how such boundaries change across communities, and have shifted over time along with attitudes to the human mind and body and the relationship between the two.

This exhibition is the Wellcome Collection’s usual high quality and high impact. On a grey Saturday afternoon it was heaving with enthusiastic visitors, showing that the subject is as ‘high’ interest today as the exhibition shows that it has been in the past.

‘High Society’ continues until 27th February 2011 with special events on ‘Drugs in Victorian Britain’ on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th February.

Katy Barrett is a PhD Student on the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World‘ supervised jointly by the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. She is currently interested in the relationships that were drawn between lunacy and the search for longitude in the early eighteenth century.

Nachdenken über Josef F. – Annäherungen an Werk und Leben Josef Forsters in der Heidelberger Sammlung Prinzhorn

Ein Ausstellungsbericht von Maike Rotzoll

Josef Forster am Ziel: Zu sich selbst gekommen, zum Edelmenschentum gelangt, schwerelos kann er „mit großer Geschwindigkeit durch die Luft gehen“. Nicht ohne Grund steht das kleine Bild mit dem „Mann ohne Schwerkraft“ im Mittelpunkt der aktuellen Ausstellung in der Sammlung Prinzhorn, Gravitationszentrum für weitere Werke Josef Forsters (1878-1949) und anderer Patienten-Künstler und, deutlich weniger, -Künstlerinnen, die in der Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Karthaus-Prüll in Regensburg gelebt haben.

Forsters „Stelzenläufer“ wurde vor fast zehn Jahren, mit der Gründung des Museums der Sammlung Prinzhorn, zum Logo und Symbol der Sammlung. Kann doch sein Höhenflug als Allegorie auf Künstlerdasein und Außenseitertum gelten – schwebend zwischen den Welten von Himmel und Erde, von Phantasie und Realität, oder auch von Kunst und Wahn: Das liegt im Auge des Betrachters.

Doch Forster schwebte nicht nur – denn um ein Selbstbildnis handelt es sich ganz sicher: Er verlieh sich Gewicht, seiner Person und der Aussage seiner Philosophie. Der leicht geschwungene Horizont seines Bildes wird zur Kulisse, zur Bühne, der Himmel zur Leinwand, vor der Forster agiert und auf der erklärende Schriftzüge erscheinen: So muss man sich beschweren, wenn der Körper kein Gewicht mehr hat. Der Geist hat sich befreit und doch den Realitätsbezug nicht verloren, er will nicht ins Unbestimmte entschweben, sondern die Welt mit seiner Aussage konfrontieren.

Welche Botschaften jedoch enthalten Josef Forsters eigenwillige Werke? Eine einzige Perspektive allein reicht keinesfalls aus, um die Bilder versuchsweise zu entschlüsseln, wenn auch nur wenige überliefert sind. Daher setzte sich im Jahr 2004 eine interdisziplinäre Arbeitsgruppe das Ziel, Forsters Werk von verschiedenen Seiten aus zu kontextualisieren, Inhalte zu erschließen und in einer Ausstellung sichtbar zu machen. Ihre Mitglieder vertraten die Fachgebiete Philosophie, Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttherapie, Psychiatrie, Psychoanalyse und Medizingeschichte. Sie gingen miteinander vernetzt zu Werke, warfen einzeln und mit vereinten Kräften die Netze aus, die Erkenntnisgewinn versprachen. Das Resultat kann nun besichtigt werden: Die Ausstellung „Durch die Luft gehen … Josef Forster, die Anstalt & die Kunst“ ist bis zum 3. April 2011 in Museum der Sammlung Prinzhorn Heidelberg zu sehen. Der Ausstellungskatalog dokumentiert und vertieft neben Forsters Werken und seiner Regensburger Krankengeschichte die sich sowohl ergänzenden als auch einander widerstreitenden Interpretationsansätze der Arbeitsgruppenmitglieder.

BesucherInnen betreten Forsters Welt sozusagen durch die Anstaltspforte. Ein Kabinett auf dem Weg zum Hauptausstellungsraum ist der Geschichte der Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Karthaus-Prüll in Regensburg gewidmet und einer ihrer Besonderheiten: Kunstsinnige Psychiater förderten hier die ihnen begabt erscheinenden Patienten. „Hoch die Arbeitstherapie: Sie erzieht mich zum Genie“ heißt es nicht umsonst in einem der im Eingangskabinett ausgestellten Werke, gezeichnet von Franz Xaver Fuchs im Jahr 1931.

1906 war der Psychiater Adolf Vierzigmann in die 1852 gegründete Regensburger Anstalt eingetreten, die als schlecht und recht an die Anforderungen der Psychiatrie adaptiertes Benediktinerkloster viele reizvolle Blickwinkel, aber auch viel Reformbedarf bot. Er zeichnete selbst, wie in der Ausstellung dokumentiert, und ermöglichte dies auch einigen seiner Patienten. Unterstützt von dem reformorientierten Direktor Karl Eisen sammelte Vierzigmann deren Werke, und so wird er es auch gewesen sein, der im Jahr 1921 wohl auf Hans Prinzhorns Anfrage Werke von Forster und 12 weiteren Regensburger Patienten nach Heidelberg schickte. Eigensinnige, „verrückte“ Bilder schickte er, konventionellere behielt er – dies entsprach wahrscheinlich dem eigenen Geschmack ebenso wie dem Anliegen des anfragenden Kunsthistorikers und Psychiaters, Gestalters der Heidelberger Sammlung.

Schlafsäle, Wachsäle, Speisesäle, lange Flure, Werkstätten, Höfe, Mauern, Zäune, Blick auf die Anstaltskirche – dies also war die Welt, über die Forster mit großer Geschwindigkeit hinweggehen wollte. Dabei hätte er es schlechter treffen können: 1916 war er in die Anstalt aufgenommen worden, nachdem ein Jahr zuvor die Erscheinung der Sonnenjungfrau sein Leben für immer verändert hatte. Im selben Jahr nahm Direktor Eisen seinen Dienst dort auf, aus dem er sich etwa zwei Jahrzehnte später während und wegen der nationalsozialistischen Herrschaft in den vorzeitigen Ruhestand zurückziehen sollte. Forster profitierte von der Reformpsychiatrie der Weimarer Zeit in ihrer spezifischen Regensburger Ausprägung. Er arbeitete in einem eigenen Atelier, sang dort auch Opernarien und konnte mit wenn auch nur vergleichsweise großer Freiheit seine eigenen Ziele verfolgen.

Freiheit, Bewegung, Leichtigkeit und Geschwindigkeit, diese Wünsche und Ziele Forsters verkörpert ein von ihm konstruiertes Fahrrad, das als Nachbau den Mittelpunkt des großen Ausstellungsraumes bildet. Es war zu Zeiten seiner erstmaligen Konstruktion ein Modell für die fast selbsttätige Fortbewegung ohne großen Kraftaufwand, geeignet für den haushohen Nachbau und für die Fahrt über „Land, Meer, Wüsten und Eisfelder“. Die leichte, biegsame Bauweise des Gefährts stammt aus dem Bereich des (Un)möglichkeitssinns, aus dem weit zurückreichenden Traum vom Perpetuum mobile, und doch sind Transportmöglichkeiten, die uns scheinbar mühelos über alle Erscheinungsformen der Erdoberfläche tragen, längst selbstverständlicher Teil unseres Wirklichkeitssinnes geworden.

Nun wird der „Mann ohne Schwerkraft“ jenseits des zentralen, raumgreifenden und transparenten Fahrrads sichtbar. Von den seitlichen Wänden blicken Forsters Selbstbildnisse ebenso wie die von ihm Portraitierten, Mitpatienten und „Med. Dr. Vierzigmann“ als Zuschauer auf die Szenerie. Nur einer der Dargestellten, ein älterer Mann, hält die Augen geschlossen. Von den Rängen der umlaufenden Galerie im Ausstellungsraum der Sammlung Prinzhorn, von oben, wo aktuell Werke von Forsters Mitpatienten seine Werke auf ihre eigene Weise kontextualisieren, kann das Ausstellungspublikum den Blick auf Fahrrad, Portraits und Gemälde durch eine weitere Perspektive ergänzen. Doch hat Forsters Theorie vom Edelmenschen damals seine Mitpatienten erreicht, konnten sie mit den heutigen Besuchern den Blick wenden von dem Fahrrad auf einen Kernbereich der Botschaft des einstigen Tapezierers und Dekorationsmalers, dargestellt in der „Sonnenjungfrau“ und dem „Blauen Wunder der Natur“?

Denn Voraussetzung für die fast schwerelose Bewegung war für Forster das „Edelmenschentum“ – und offenbar spielte die madonnenähnliche, strahlenumkränzte Vision der Sonnenjungfrau in diesem Zusammenhang eine große Rolle. Gleich dreifach ist sie in der Ausstellung repräsentiert, gegenüber dem „Stelzenläufer“. Einmal erscheint sie allein, im „Blauen Wunder der Natur“ erleuchtet sie Forster und auf der fotografischen Abbildung eines verschollenen Werkes teilt sie als Göttin das irdische Jammertal von der Sphäre der Erwählten: Unter den Verklärten und Edelmenschen befindet sich auch Forster.

Hatte die Sonnenjungfrau Forster also den Weg gewiesen zur Sublimierung seiner selbst? Denn keineswegs war es mit einer einzigen verklärenden Vision getan, sondern ein mühsamer, sicher auch einsam machender Pfad der Autarkie musste beschritten werden. Dieser sehr spezielle Weg war auch im Anstaltsalltag grundsätzlich möglich (wenn auch weitgehend im Verborgenen) und seine geistigen Wurzeln reichten zurück in eine Zeit, in der der die Harmonie der Körpersäfte für die Gesundheit, auch die geistige, fundamental gewesen war: Die kathartische Selbstveredelung nach Forster konnte nur durch Rückführung der eigenen Ausscheidungen in den Körper erfolgen. So nahm er – zeitweise fast ausschließlich – Kot, Sperma und Urin zu sich und hielt den Nasenschleim mithilfe einer Binde zurück, wie sie auch der „Mann ohne Schwerkraft“ zeigt. Die Zirkulation des Schleims in einem „Schleimring“ musste ebenfalls aktiv beeinflusst und aufrecht erhalten werden. Wie in einem alchemischen Prozess mögen die genannten Substanzen auf ihren immer neuen Passagen durch den Körper höhere Reinheitsgrade erreicht haben, jedenfalls sollte die Praktik letztendlich zu einer glockenhellen Stimme und zum Verlust der Schwerkraft führen, äußeren Kennzeichen des erreichten Edelmenschentums.

Hatte Forsters existenzielles Projekt von Sublimierung durch Autarkie und Askese auch zu der Unterschiedlichkeit seiner Selbstportraits geführt, auf denen wohl kaum zufällig die Mund- und Nasenregion besonders betont erscheint? „So oft ich mich Portraittiere sehe ich anders aus manchmal wie ein unschuldiges Kind“, hielt er fest.

Sicherlich nicht alle Geheimnisse geben Forsters Bilder und Aufzeichnungen preis – so verweist die Zeichnung des Motors einer Wiedergeburtsmaschine auf eine religiöse Dimension, ohne Genaueres zu verraten. Und immer wieder wird der Anstaltskontext deutlich, in dem Forster wie die anderen Regensburger Patienten-Künstler verankert bleibt, wenn er sich auch gleichzeitig von dessen Horizont löst, ihn mit seinen großen, fast schwerelosen Luftschritten weit hinter sich lässt.

So ist es stimmig, wenn sich die BesucherInnen der Ausstellung gleichsam erden über einen Gang nach oben, die Besichtigung der Werke anderer Patienten-Künstler auf der Galerie. Besonderer Blickfang ist hier ein zwar phantastischer, aber doch auch realitätsbezogener Plan der Anstalt Regensburg von Franz Kleber aus dem spätern 19. Jahrhundert. Der Abschluss lenkt die Aufmerksamkeit nochmals auf die Patientenperspektive, in doppelter Hinsicht: Unter dem Blick der Portraits von Mitpatienten, die der versierte Maler und Regensburger Insasse Hermann Rehbach hinterließ, beendet man den Rundgang mit dem zweiten Kabinett.

„Wie man es erzählen kann, so ist es nicht gewesen“ – was Christa Wolf in „Nachdenken über Christa T.“ festhielt, gilt auch für Josef Forster, seine Geschichte und seine Botschaft. Doch die vielfältigen Perspektiven auf sein Werk, die Gegenüberstellungen und Kontextualisierungen im Sinne der Cultural Studies helfen zu verstehen, dass in Forsters Werken nicht einfach Wahnsinn waltet, sondern dass Höhenflüge und Menschheitsträume innerhalb und außerhalb von Anstaltsmauern die gleichen Wurzeln haben.


September Psychiatric Times Post: Who’s Haunting Whom? The New Fad in Asylum Tourism

The most recent monthly essay from H-Madness for the online magazine Psychiatric Times has been posted.  For those of you not subscribing to the magazine, here is a slightly revised version of the piece.

Who’s Haunting Whom? The New Fad in Asylum Tourism

by Greg Eghigian

Photography has been a part of the history of psychiatry and mental illness since at least the last quarter of the nineteenth century.   French clinicians Henri Dagonet and Jean-Martin Charcot were among the first to use photography in the 1870s to aid in establishing reliable diagnostic criteria for particular maladies.  Charcot especially was renowned for taking photographs of patients suffering from hysteria in order to analyze their hysterical episodes, breaking down their postures and gestures into discrete stages in order to enable a more accurate diagnosis.  A recent book by Mary Bergstein, Mirrors of Memory: Freud, Photography, and the History of Art (Cornell University Press), argues that turn of the century photography played a key role in the development of psychoanalysis.   And in 1946, Life magazine published the now famous photographic essay “Bedlam” by Albert Maisel, chronicling the miserable conditions in which many psychiatric patients in state hospitals were living at the time in the United States.

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that photographers – both professional and amateur – these days are showing some interest in the history of psychiatry.  What is striking this time, however, is the object of their interests.  For some time now, photographers have been visiting asylums and hospitals that have been emptied and abandoned in the wake of de-institutionalization.  While many people are well aware of the impact de-institutionalization had on inpatient care – in the United States, there were around 558,000 patients in public psychiatric facilities in 1955; that figure was less than 72,000 by 1994 – lesser known is the fact that many defunct facilities were simply left standing, with some of the furniture, equipment, and even personal effects of patients inside.

These abandoned asylums and psychiatric hospitals have proven to be something of an underground attraction for what some bloggers refer to as “urban explorers.”  Along with deserted prisons, churches, factories, orphanages, sanatoria, and hotels, unoccupied mental hospitals have come to assume something of a cult status, as a place to catch a glimpse of a lost world and to capture it on film or in digital form (links to some of the websites displaying these photographs can be found here).

Glancing at the websites of some of these photographers, it is clear that one of the draws for asylum visitors lies in bearing witness to the imagined beauty of debris and relics. The website “Opacity [Urban Ruins],” for instance, is the project of a thirty-year old graphic designer and programmer by the name of Tom Kirsch, who describes it this way:

This site is dedicated to documenting various abandoned places through both text and photographs; recording their transformations through time before they are demolished. The abundance of abandoned asylums and psychiatric hospitals in the New England area create the bulk of the locations here; these beautiful state funded structures are vast and complex, giving insight to both the humanity and mistreatment towards the mentally ill over the past two centuries.

The reference to the “humanity and mistreatment towards the mentally ill” is telling.  At the websites I visited, references to the history of asylums and psychiatry mostly riffed on the theme of abuse and neglect, presuming these to be endemic to asylum life.

And herein, I believe, lies one of the chief enticements for these visitors: the promise of some kind of uncanny experience, grounded in a thirst for adventure and thrills (some admittedly break into the buildings they are visiting).  The New York-based photographers at “Hours of Darkness,” for example, take their photographs at night.  Why then?

There is just something that draws us out into the darkness. Perhaps it’s just the feeling you get on a night where the thermometer doesn’t go past 7 degrees. Maybe it’s that night photography requires more of a commitment one must linger around one location for 3 hours or more just to get one good shot. Whatever it is, we find ourselves out under the full moon with cameras in hand.

The invocation here of the full moon is no accident.  Many, perhaps even most, of the photographs generated by those poking around abandoned asylums appropriate a horror film aesthetic. In an interview with the online magazine Dazed Digital, the London-based photographer Jenny Hardcore was asked what inspired her to visit and photograph an abandoned asylum. “I have always held a visual fascination with places that unsettle the viewer,” she answers.  “I used to spend a lot of time watching horror movies and this visit was very much like walking into a set for me, but a set with very a real history and tangible humanity.”

To be sure, there are sites, such as “Abandoned Asylum,” that bring to their subject matter a measured sobriety.  Iva Stanley, for instance, tells us “We walked through and took pictures. We visited this abandoned facility with the utmost of respect.  I wish there had been more ‘personal’ signs of the lives that had once lived there,  but I was glad just for the experience.  There were many lives lived here and many stories behind those lives.”   This, however, appears to have had little impact on visitors to her site.  A glance at some of the reader comments reveals what many find most compelling in the photos.

Abbey, 02-Aug-2010 02:42

OMG!!!! Ghost Hunters went there at night and it was freaky!!but really kool

Jace, 07-Feb-2010 11:11

Wow these photos are disturbing and yet so moving. I would find it hard to enter such a place knowing that horrible things had happened to people here. You are both very brave!

Phill, 04-Nov-2009 06:42

Went to a haunted abandoned mental asylum in australia last night with all of my friends and i am telling you now i have never experienced anything like it in my life, saw ghosts, felt ghosts saw things move now this shit interests me so much, pretty cool.

Again, there are responsible amateur and professional photographers such as Matt McDonough, who make the effort to more thoughtfully place their images in a wider and deeper historical context.   Very few others, however, appear to see anything amiss in their voyeuristic curiosity.  But as historian Carla Yanni has recently noted in her review of the online photography exhibit of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane by self-styled urban explorer Slyv, “Curiosity about the patients doesn’t erase stigma; it perpetuates stigma. Sneaking around asylums diminishes the lived experience of the patients who suffered in there.  It’s not OK to lie in someone else’s coffin, or wear someone else’s straitjacket.”

Earlier in history, it used to be acceptable for members of the public to visit madhouses and asylums and to there observe the premises and/or their inhabitants.   Some, if not most, patients considered this form of asylum tourism an intrusion. (Admittedly, visitors to asylums included a wide range of people, including relatives, luminaries, and authorities, not all of whom were unwelcome.  See Permeable Walls: Historical Perspectives on Hospital and Asylum Visiting, ed., Graham Mooney and Jonathan Reinarz). I can’t help but see the camera-carrying “ruins tourists” and “urban explorers” of today – both professional and amateur alike –  as not terribly different from their earlier voyeuristic counterparts, eavesdropping on the lives of others for what amounts to little more than titillation and entertainment. Yanni is quite correct in her analysis:  these excursions are really best understood as incursions, serving only to further mystify and marginalize individuals and groups who historically have been seen as alien to accepted society.

In this regard, we would all be better served considering how former residents of these facilities might respond to these visitations.  One winter day around 1852, a young woman and her companions from the area insisted on touring the Utica State Lunatic Asylum in upstate New York.  She proved to be disappointed by her visit, she later reported to the editor of the patients’ monthly periodical The Opal, owing to the fact that “for all we could see, the patients look and act like other people.  We asked our guide, who was civil enough, if he wouldn’t take us where we could see something. He politely bowed us away to the sleigh.”  The editor of the paper responded to the young visitor’s letter, reminding her and other readers what was often overlooked by outsiders:

Could she see the heart aching with grief which will not and cannot be comforted – or withered by long and solitary indulgence in thoughts of the neglect or scorn of the world, which, whether real or imaginary, cannot be removed by the sympathising tones nor cheering smiles or that love which always soothes and animates a mind in trouble – or torn and racked by passions which are always contending with each other, and, having no reality for their object, may never give any outward manifestation of the agonizing tumult which reigns within!

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