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"Insane Art" - Artistic Genius or Insanity?

20 June 2008 31 comments

"The art of the mentally ill is currently the focus of great interest. There have been numerous books on the subject, the emergence of specialized journals, international exhibitions, and the sale of work at ever-increasing prices. The creations of mentally ill patients have been given various names, such as ‘outsider art’, ‘psychotic art’, ‘art brut’ and ‘art extraordinary’. The area has attracted psychiatrists, artists and historians."
A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill
Allan Beveridge, MPhil FRCPsych

Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), who as an art historian and doctor was versed in both fields, is regarded nowadays as having pioneered an interdisciplinary approach. He was interested in questions of cultural anthropology, such as the origins of the artistic impulse, or the "schizophrenic sense of existence" he witnessed in contemporary Expressionist art. And he hoped to gain direct, primal insight into these questions through the patients' works. During the years after the First World War, he built up with the support of Karl Wilmanns, the head of the Psychiatric Department in Heidelberg, a unique collection of works from psychiatric hospitals. His richly illustrated book The Artistry of the Mentally Ill (Berlin 1922) not only documented the collection, but partly interpreted it and contextualised it through a critical examination of the prevailing culture. Here he departed once and for all from any questions about the relevance of the works for diagnostics. Instead, he emphasised that all of these creative phenomena are equally valid in psychological terms, and that some have recognisably artistic quality - thus allowing this disparaged "insane art" and its creators to be given a positive re-evaluation. Prinzhorn's great achievement was, in effect, to open up the blinkered viewpoint of psychiatry to include the realms of both art and art history. This was a courageous step which, in the long term, helped the patients' creative production receive its just acclaim and to promote a reintegration of the patients into society.[More]

Adolf Wölfli
Adolf Wölfli (1864 - 1930) (occasionally spelled Adolf Woelfli or Adolf Wolfli) was a prolific Swiss artist who is regarded as one of the foremost artists in the Art Brut or outsider art traditions.
Wölfli was abused both physically and sexually as a child, and was orphaned at the age of 10; He thereafter grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a farm labourer and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time. Sometime after being freed, he was arrested for a similar offence and was admitted in 1895 to the Waldau Clinic in Berne, Switzerland, a psychiatric hospital where he spent the rest of his adult life. He was very disturbed and sometimes violent on admission, leading to him being kept in isolation for his early time at hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.

August Natterer
August Natterer (1868 - 1933), also known as Neter, was a schizophrenic German outsider artist.
August Natterer, given the pseudonym Neter by his psychiatrist to protect him and his family from the immense social stigma associated with mental illness at the time, was born in 1868 in Schornreute, near Ravensburg, Germany, the son of a clerk and the youngest of nine children. Natterer studied engineering, got married, traveled widely, and had a successful career as an electrician but was suddenly stricken with delusions and anxiety attacks. On April Fool's Day, 1907 he had a pivotal hallucination of the Last Judgment during which "10,000 images flashed by in half an hour." He described it as follows: "I saw a white spot in the clouds absolutely close – all the clouds paused – then the white spot departed and stood all the time like a board in the sky. On the same board or the screen or stage now images as quick as a flash followed each other, about 10,000 in half an hour… God himself occurred, the witch, who created the world – in between worldly visions: images of war, continents, memorials, castles, beautiful castles, just the glory of the world – but all of this to see in supernal images. They were at least twenty meters big, clear to observe, almost without color like photographs… The images were epiphanies of the Last Judgment. Christ couldn't fulfill the salvation because he was crucified early... God revealed them to me to accomplish the salvation."
This ordeal led to a suicide attempt and committal to the first of what would be several mental asylums occupied during the remaining twenty-six years of his life. Natterer thereafter maintained that he was the illegitimate child of Emperor Napoleon I and "Redeemer of the World." The vision had inspired an intense production of drawings, all documenting images and ideas seen in the vision. Because of the intense and psychotic imagery, Netterer's work is more often studied scientifically than artistically. He died in 1933 in an asylum near Rottweil.

Karl Brendel
Karl Brendel (1871-1925) was a schizophrenic outsider artist and one of the "schizophrenic masters" profiled by Hans Prinzhorn in his field-defining work Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1923, in German; English edition 1972). He was the only sculptor profiled in Prinzhorn's work, and the work also includes more illustrations of his work (twenty-four sculptures and eight drawings) than that of any other profiled artist.
Brendel was born in central Germany, the son of a freight transporter and one of eight children, attending school through the age of 14 and becoming employed variously as a bricklayer, plasterer, and moulder in an iron foundry. He married a widow with three children in 1895 and had two children of his own with her. However, from 1892 on Brendel was sentenced 12 times for assault and battery and property damage, and had to serve a prison term in 1902, at which point his marriage ended. His left leg was injured in an accident in 1900, and later amputated.
The first records of his mental illness come from 1906, when the prison doctor noticed megalomaniacal delusions and abnormal physical sensations; Brendel claimed that he has already experienced a sacrificial death, and that he was Jesus Christ. He was admitted to the Eickelborn asylum, near Lippstadt, in 1907.

Louis Wain
Any history or anthology of the National Cat Club would be incomplete without the "Winking Cat" or the National Logo - both designed by one of the National's Founder members, the renowned artist and illustrator Louis Wain. His contributions to the foundations of this great club were immense and his talented paintings, sketches, drawings and cartoons of cats must have played a major part in popularising the cat.
It was so tragic, therefore, when in 1925 he was discovered to be living in a pauper lunatic asylum.
An appeal was launched by Mrs. Cecil Chesterton in the September, 1925, issue of the magazine ANIMALS. This produced an immediate response from the public. In her appeal, Mrs. Chesterton wrote, "For years Louis Wain's cats decorated our hoardings, adorned the covers of magazines and were familiarly loved by every child and the majority of grown-ups. No Christmas Calendar was complete without this artist, no annual was issued that did not contain one of his vivid sketches. And yet, at the age of 65, he is so bereft of means that in his affliction he is compelled to accept the hospitality of a State institution ..............."
"Louis Wain was not one of those men who take no thought for the morrow. His history is one of the tragedies which rouse our deepest feelings of commiseration. For years he made a fair income but, with a lack of business acumen, so often allied to genius, when he sold his drawings he parted with them outright, thus receiving no payment when they were reproduced over and over, again .............."
"Though he was a prolific worker, the war (1914-1918) put an end to his means of livelihood as public demand changed in favour of khaki as against cats. Such publications as were still devoted to Louis Wain reproduced those of his drawings which had already been paid for."
"By this means Louis Wain's resources dwindled and though for a time he made a little money by cinema cartoons, he gradually found himself penniless and without employment. A period of intense privation, added to the mental strain and bewilderment at finding himself in such a position, precipitated a breakdown. In 1923 he was admitted as a pauper to the asylum where he has been ever since."
"Louis Wain is not a violent lunatic. He is now what he has always been - gentle, unassuming, humorous and able at times to use his pencil and reproduce his beloved cats. But there are periods of darkness when he knows no one. At such periods one feels acutely that he should have everything that money can provide."
Richard Dadd
Richard Dadd's work lives on. Even during his lifetime, the Victorian public were interested in him, and there were several popular exhibitions of his work. In our century, Dadd has come back into the public eye. The rock band Queen had a song on their second album titled "Fairy Feller's Master Stroke", and there are dozens of other contemporary examples, including author Neal Gaiman, who cites him as an inspiration.
Would we have remembered Richard Dadd, had he not gone insane and murdered his father? Most likely not. Like the Marquis de Sade, who spent the final years of his life in an asylum, the institution allowed him to explore his internalized passions to their fullest. In the institution, Dadd, had no models to work from, only his memories. The painted world became the real one, much like the Marquis with his writings. It was truly his insanity, not for the notoriety it gave him, but the intensity of focus it allowed, that made him great.

Lemuel Francis Abbot
Portrait of Admiral Robert Calder by Lemuel Francis Abbott, painted 1797
Lemuel Francis Abbot (c. 1760–5 December 1802) was an English portrait painter, famous for his portrait of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson (currently hanging in the Terracotta Room of number 10 Downing Street) and for those of other naval officers and literary figures of the 18th century.
Born in Leicestershire in 1760 or 1761, to the clergyman Lemuel Abbott and his wife Mary, he became in 1775 a pupil of Francis Hayman and lived in London.
Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy, Abbott never became an Academician. He became insane when he was about 40 and was attended by Dr Thomas Munro (1759–1833), the chief physician to Bethlem Hospital and a specialist in mental disorders. Munro also treated the insanity of King George III (1738–1820). Abbott died in London on 5 December 1802.

Charles Altamont Doyle
Charles Altamont Doyle, (1888)Charles Altamont Doyle (1832 – 1893) was a Victorian artist. He was the brother of the artist Richard Doyle, and the son of the artist John Doyle. Although the family was Irish, Doyle was born and raised in England.
In 1849 he moved to Edinburgh where he met Mary Foley. They were married, and their children included Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle was not as successful an artist as he wished, and suffered depression and alcoholism. His paintings, which were generally of fairies or similar fantasy scenes, reflected this, becoming more macabre over time.
In 1881 Doyle was committed to a nursing home specialising in alcoholism. While there, his depression grew worse, and he began suffering epileptic seizures. Following a violent escape attempt he was sent to Sunnyside, Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, where he continued to paint. He died in Crighton Royal Institution in 1893.
An edition of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1888, with illustrations by Charles Doyle.

Related Links:

Review/Art; From Alien to Familiar

N .A. E. M. I
National Art Exhibitions
by the Mentally Ill Inc.

modus vivendi

Adolf Wölfli
August Natterer
Karl Brendel
Lemuel Francis Abbott
Charles Altamont Doyle

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31 comments: to “ "Insane Art" - Artistic Genius or Insanity? so far...

  • jafabrit 20.6.08

    Your post was a very interesting read. I love to see outsider art and used to visit the visionary museum in Baltimore, maryland frequently.

  • Kim 20.6.08

    I'm not surprised that you love outsider art Corrine as some of your work is very similar to this style...
    though I'm sure you don't have the problems these artists had ;)
    I'll check out the Baltimore museum...I love the sculpture that was produced in this movement ...

  • Anonymous 21.6.08

    What an artistic way to guide us through this true art - thanks for sharing and for sharing all your research and knowledge. This art should be more treasured - thanks for keeping it alive!

  • Kim 21.6.08

    hi Renny
    it was fascinating research and very sad too...
    I really only skimmed the surface ....
    a great weekend to you :) :)

  • Casey Klahn 21.6.08

    Psychosis is nothing to celebrate, I'll tell you that! But, this is a very thought provoking study - and not to be buried, either.

    And, we remember our greatest hero, Vincent van Gogh. Not in the same schools of art as these men, but a genius and tragic figure in art, eh?

  • Kim 21.6.08

    so very true !!
    I think Van Gogh is the greatest example of artistic genius driven mad ....
    how ironic that his talent is now recognised....
    yet he did not have the support when he was alive...
    thanks for your opinions Casey ..
    have a great weekend :)

  • Anonymous 21.6.08

    Why Sherlock, Miss Kim Holmes has been investigating the inner sanctum of psychotic art...

    Too bad they couldn't focus their talents on Art only.

    Art Thou No Art Savants or Savant Artists?

    Could be another fascinating field of research like the story of Nadia, a 3-year-old Savant Artist.

  • Speedcat Hollydale 21.6.08

    Louis Wain's cats?? I draw cats too ... will I be crazy in a few years, or am I already? (don't answer that) :-)

    I had a dream about cutting my ear off. J/K (hee hee)

  • Speedcat Hollydale 21.6.08

    Moneypennie's Savant story was interesting as well.

  • Kim 21.6.08

    I have Miss MP :)- art agent in the field ;)
    and yes..some tragic stories...and many more too !!!
    pehaps part 2 may be needed..
    your link to Nadia is fascinating...Art Savants!!!
    wonderful :)
    definitely a future post...thank you....

  • Kim 21.6.08

    I must get a copy of
    Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical
    sounds really intriguing :0

  • Kim 21.6.08

    haaaa Speedy Van Gogh...
    I think you have more chance of going insane hanging around chickens ..than drawing cats !!!
    but for me to give a proper analysis I would need to see the actual drawings... :)
    I think you and Miss MP may already be keyboard Savants!!!!

  • fastfastlane 21.6.08

    Excellent post and research, Kim :-)

    It definitely calls for part 2 in the series.

    Vincent Van Gogh is one of my all-time favorite artists ... such a tragic life he led filled with sorrow.

    The book of his letters to Theo, his brother, is very difficult to read through as it reveals so much of the darkness in his life, but it's also very enlightening to the struggles he battled. A very sad life that this amazing artist led.

  • Kim 21.6.08

    thanks Deborah...and thanks for the submissions too :)
    yes Van Gogh was a tormented soul...thank goodness his brother was there for him...
    there were quite a few tormented artists around that time...Modigliani...Letrec...
    and then there was Schiele and Munch as well...
    I think this may call for three parts eh...

  • Anonymous 21.6.08

    A very finely written article and quite interesting.

  • Michelle B. Hendry 22.6.08

    Really interesting post...
    My husband chatted with an international art broker once and he mentioned that, in this day and age, the story of the artist - and the more bizarre - the easier it is to market their work in big places... The celebrity factor attached to those outside the norm is having a big impact on our current culture. We look at those creators with mental disorders with curiosity and try to see if we can understand them through their work. Sometimes I think it borders more on human interest than on the art for its own sake - but then the human element can be what makes art interesting...

  • Michelle B. Hendry 22.6.08

    I should add... Of course that shouldn't be surprising as we become more and more detached from people in our technological society...

    LOL! OK - I'm really done now... Your post really got me to thinking...!

  • Anonymous 22.6.08

    Great post, it is very informative.


  • Mariuca 22.6.08

    Hi Kim, just dropping off my EC for the day, hope u're having a good weekend! :)

  • durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit 23.6.08

    Hello Kim,

    What an sumptuous catalog of artists under this category of creators. It gives fresh perspectives and new insights into the visions they have expressed, and the message they have tried to convey.

    As I said in a previous comment, not everyone in an asylum is necessarily insane - perhaps just tormented. And, not everyone running around free is sane!

    Excellent post! :-) --Durano, done!

  • durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit 23.6.08


    Is it possible that most politicians are artists - especially those from Burma - who belong to this category of painters? Most are not making sense and implement insane decisions! LOL!:-) --Durano, done!

  • durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit 23.6.08

    By the way...

    Is there a category for dumb art? George Bush would certainly qualify. :-)

    I hear he doodles quite a lot.:-) --Durano, done!

  • Amy Lilley Designs 23.6.08

    I think that artists really do see things much differently than the rest of the world...and I think, from my own experience, we really do 'see things'...that said, mental illness, (Van Gogh being a prime example), and the treatment thereof still has a long way to go...had many of these extra -ordinary folks had some help, some support, things might have turned out differently...that was alot of work Miss Kim...fascinating and yes,as you said, very sad...

  • Amy Lilley Designs 23.6.08

    I was just thinking, wouldn't it have been interesting if Van Gogh had a blog???????

  • Kim 23.6.08

    thanks Boyd :)
    and thanks for the digg and stumble too!!
    have a great day :) :)

    I couldn't agree more...Michelle !!
    you're right about the bizarre element too..
    it seems to me that people are always attracted to the unusual over the usual...
    eccentricity and oddity are bound to be of interest..
    a good example would be TV shows and of course the internet...where sensationalism is rampant...

    thanks for dropping by MD

    hi Mariuca..
    thanks for your good wishes..
    have a sunny day :)

    lol Durano
    Bush the doodler.. haha
    hear hear
    "not everyone in an asylum is necessarily insane - perhaps just tormented."
    I recently watched a movie called Rendition....sums up your opinion perfectly...
    you would enjoy it Durano !

    how true Amy..
    artists do 'see' differently and it would be wonderful if there was more empathy for those artists who are physically and mentally challenged...
    we are ALL supposed to be individual and unique !!..
    we should make an effort to support and celebrate that..

  • Kim 23.6.08

    hi again Amy..
    that would have been fantastic!!!
    the life and letters of Vincent Van Gogh !!
    I think he would have had a lot of fans :)

  • Anonymous 24.6.08

    The celebrity factor attached to those outside the norm is having a big impact on our current culture. We look at those creators with mental disorders with curiosity and try to see if we can understand them through their work. Sometimes I think it borders more on human interest than on the art for its own sake - but then the human element can be what makes art interesting...

  • TOMAS 26.6.08

    Thanks again for the wonderful blog.
    The post ""Insane Art" - Artistic Genius or Insanity?" have caught me at a glimpse, so to say, out of the professional interest - my blog Modus Vivendi is dedicated to the life of art therapy club that works in the hospital for the people with psychiatric disorders.
    Your visit to us and your comments would make a day to many here.
    Be well my dear friend

  • annakat 1.9.08

    Interesting and so very very sad. Only in death did they become famous. I've noticed this in a lot of artist, not only painters but of different kinds of art. But for a painter to paint such feelings and darkness you have to wonder what is going on in their mind at the time. That is part of what makes their paintings worth so much in today's market.

  • Beverly Kaye 28.10.08

    Most serious collectors are only interested in the background stories because they allow the viewer to take a more educated look at the art. BTW Oliver Sacks book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" is a mesmerizing read told by a top professional. I have head him speak and he is a fascinating man who embraces art and has a real sensitivity for his clients.

  • Chicago Web Design 3.3.09

    Great info. I've added you to my RSS Reader. Check out my Website: Chicago Web Design

About The Author
Kim Barker is a Visual Artist (Diploma in Art and Graduate Diploma in Education). She is also a fully trained Reading Recovery Teacher. She has taught RAD (Royal Academy of Dancing) and Cecchetti Ballet Syllabii. Kim also manages the Top Artist' Directory and PoeARTica as well as her blog laketrees She lives with her family on the Eastern Central Coast of Australia. Follow Kim at laketrees on Twitter for updates and news