Imagining Madness: The Conceptualisation of Mental Illness in Psychiatric Art Collections

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Psychiatric hospitals have long been interested in collecting and exhibiting psychiatric art, or what is today often called “outsider” or “raw” art.1 The Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany, is possibly the most prominent of such psychiatric art collections. Other examples include the Museum Dr. Guislain in Gent, Belgium, the Haus der Künstler in Gugging near Vienna, Austria, the Museum Ovartaci in Aarhus, Denmark, the Psychiatry Museum at the Waldau Clinic and the Art Gallery of Bern, Switzerland, the Dax Centre in Melbourne, as well as Het Dolhuys in Haarlem in the Netherlands. Psychiatric art is not collected and exhibited only by psychiatric institutions but, since Jean Dubuffet’s endeavours after 1945, also outside of the medical space, for example, by the L’Art Brut museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Outsider Art collection of the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam.2 The artworks in these collections seem to suggest a psychological aberration which can be classified and categorised in terms of a psychiatric diagnosis of the artist-patient. The pathology of the artist is therefore a precondition for the art collection, meaning the pathology is kept alive as a guarantor for the work of art in which it apparently finds notable expression. That said, not all of the above-mentioned collections subscribe to such a reading. In this chapter, I will investigate the question of how these collections of art by psychiatric institutions pertain to or indeed deconstruct a medical knowledge. While arising out of a psychiatric framework, do they resist psychiatric inquiry, and if so, can they be “read” otherwise, i.e. aesthetically, sociologically, politically, or for that matter, psychoanalytically?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAnatomy of the Medical Image
Subtitle of host publicationKnowledge Production and Transfiguration from the Renaissance to Today
EditorsChristiane Weller, Axel Fliethmann
Place of PublicationLeiden Netherlands
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9789004445017
ISBN (Print)9789004406759
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameClio medica
ISSN (Print)0045-7183

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