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Art Review

Outsider Art

Works by the mentally ill explore the nature of creativity in Prinzhorn Collection.


Even Prinzhorn himself (1886-1933) was prone to idealize these men and women, but then again, he was busy building self-styled aesthetic theories around their work. He had received a doctorate in art history before studying psychiatry and psychoanalysis. When he started work as an assistant in the psychiatry clinic at Heidelberg University, a collection of visual works had already been assembled as a teaching aid for the clinicians. Prinzhorn solicited additional works from clinics and asylums throughout Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, expanding the collection to 5,000 objects before leaving his position as its director in 1921. The following year he published the widely influential book, "Bildnerei der Geisteskranken" (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), which made the rounds among artists' circles in France, especially, and was the initial launching point for Jean Dubuffet's postwar conception of Art Brut.

Prinzhorn hoped to establish a museum for the collection, and next year, his dream will be actualized, on a site in Heidelberg. This show marks the first time that works in the collection have appeared in the U.S., but exhibitions of outsider art--including not just the work of institutionalized patients but other self-taught artists working outside the mainstream--have been regulars on the museum circuit; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted one of them, "Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outside Art," in the early '90s.

Ironically, the current show's jargon-choked catalog evokes an alternate world of its own, but a useful and far more thoughtful volume from an earlier exhibition in London is also available at the Hammer.

Art galleries in Germany exhibited parts of the Prinzhorn Collection in the 1920s and '30s, alongside contemporary art similarly naked in its expression of primal impulses, chaos and lust. While the Nazis exploited the resemblance between the two, declaring it evidence of a general "lowering of the dignity of man," others saw it, conversely, as reason to raise the dignity of the mentally ill. The latter, thankfully, have won in the end, allowing for intriguing shows like this to be staged, where those potent and feared impulses can be openly confronted.

* "The Prinzhorn Collection: Traces Upon the Wunderblock," UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., through Sept. 17. Closed Monday. (310) 443-7020.

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