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Beyond Reason contains about 150 color plates of works from the Prinzhorn Collection, as well as 3 introductory essays illustrated with many smaller black and white photographs of art works, which take up the first 40 pages of the book. It is based on a 1996 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Hans Prinzorn was a German art historian and psychiatrist who collected over 5000 art works by psychiatric patients between 1890 and 1920.
For each artist whose work is included among the plates, there is a table of information giving, when available, the dates, birthplace and place of death, case number, relligion, occupation, marital status, and diagnosis of the artist. For example:
Heinrich Hermann Mebes
Born Liebenwalder, nr Berlin, 1842
Died Eberswalde (asylum)
Case no. 34
Marital status: single
Diagnosis: dementia praecox (schizophrenia).
Mebes made astonishing pictures, often accompanied by text, with pen, pencil and brush on paper reminiscent of Edmund Gorey and William Blake, with titles such as "Who will roll the stone from the entrance of the tomb? (Easter)" and "Follow God abandon Gods".
Simpler is the entry for Anges Richter.
Born 1873, recorded Hubertusburg (asylum)
Case no. 52
Diagnosis: dementia praecox (schizophrenia).
She has just one work in this book: a hand-sewn jacket embroidered with autobiographical and other texts, constructed of yarn on institutional gray linen. Of course it is not possible to read the texts on the jacket, and even if one could, one would have to be able to translate from the German. Even if one could translate, it's probable that much of the writing is obscure in its meaning. The same is likely to be true of the text in the works of Heinrich Mebes, and the many other artists who include words in artistic creations. This, as mush so much art, the meaning of the pieces of art shown in this book is often inscrutable. The essay by Caroline Douglas, "Splendid and Precious Fossils," addresses the issue of how to approach these extraordinary creations. It's obviously not enough to just regard them as symptoms of mental illness, and it's not even clear to what extent it is helpful to know that the artists were mentally ill in trying to understand what the words mean.
To give another example, it is very tempting to look at the sketch by Jakob Mohr, titled "Beweisse," where one man is holding a kind of machine, which is emitting rays, or wires that reach into the body of another man, and to conclude that this is a depiction of a delusion. Schizophrenic patients often say that some external force is looking into their body and mind, and even controlling them, and so it is not surprising that Mohr had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Other pictures have explicitly sexual themes, and seem to represent some kinds of fantasies or fears. But it would be simplistic to assume that all the art in this book is simply a more or less disguised expression of wishes or phobias.
So it is clear that most of these works of art will remain mysterious to the reader, even after careful study. Nevertheless, these pictures are worth examining, because they convey a range of powerful emotions, and they are rich in their ideas. They are also clever, funny, and beautiful. There's an astonishing variety of different forms of art here, and it is fascinating to look through the pictures here again and again.
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