“The Electric Pencil” drawing by James Edward Deeds

Whenever I am in Heidelberg, which is not often, the Prinzhorn Collection is my first port of call. The Prinzhorn Collection is the world’s first, largest, and best collection of art by psychotic patients, founded by the psychiatrist Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. To Prinzhorn belongs the honor, to my mind a considerable one, of having recognized artistic merit in the productions of psychotic persons and not merely pathological manifestations of grossly disordered psyches. It bespeaks a laudable openness and largeness of spirit in him as well as an admirably independent aesthetic judgment. These do not always go together. The sensitive book he published in 1922 about the art of psychotics, The Art of the Mentally Ill, is still in print and is a classic in its admittedly small field. Four years after Prinzhorn’s death in 1933, items from the collection were placed alongside works of celebrated modern artists in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition arranged by the Nazis, with the implication that madness and modernism were indistinguishable. The Nazis probably destroyed some of the works they took from the collection, but more than 5,000 works that were collected by Dr. Prinzhorn between 1919 and 1921 from asylums all round Germany have survived.

Nazism managed by the extremity of its evil to besmirch everything that came before and after it. Doubts have therefore often been expressed in Germany about the ideological propriety of the collection, its origins, its purposes, and its location. Four of the collection’s artists were killed in what turned out to be a rehearsal for the Holocaust: the frequent murder (sometimes mistakenly called the euthanasia) of German mental patients. The fates of thirty other artists, their times and places of death, are not known. During the Nazi era, the director of the Heidelberg University Department of Psychiatry, to which the collection belongs, Dr. Carl Schneider, selected patients to be killed and then dissected their brains (he committed suicide before he could be tried for his crimes). Most nagging of the doubts surrounding the collection is the allegation that Prinzhorn himself was a Nazi. It was only his death from typhus in Munich a few months into the Nazi era that saved him from becoming certifiably atrocious.

Personally, I have difficulty—or perhaps I am only reluctant—to believe that Prinzhorn was a monster. It is true that Prinzhorn expressed Nazi sympathies towards the end of his life, but I like to think that a man who had shown so much empathetic understanding of the mentally ill, and so valued their artistic productions, would not have countenanced their wholesale murder, which had not begun by the time he died. Prinzhorn was definitely not a man without moral courage: He faced the derision of his professional colleagues for what they considered his excessive aesthetic interest in and sympathy for psychotic art, and he never received proper recognition during his lifetime for his work, dying in relative poverty and obscurity. I imagine him, then, turning unequivocally against the Nazis. But irrespective of whether this unprovable hypothesis is true, the Prinzhorn Collection under the auspices of the University of Heidelberg has long done sterling work in mounting exhibitions and producing excellent scholarly monographs.

It is a sign of our changed and in some respects improved, certainly enlarged, sensibility that no one now could visit the Prinzhorn Collection without being moved by the works on display. For the imaginative, even the medium of the works sometimes reveals or indicates a world of suffering: crayon, for example, on lavatory paper. Here the struggle, the need, for self-expression is not reduced to a mere metaphor or an egotistical assertion of self such as in, again for example, the current vogue for tattooing. The artists in the Prinzhorn Collection used their drawing, not always officially encouraged and sometimes surreptitious, to lessen the distress of their fractured inner and deeply impoverished outer lives.

But sympathy for the situation of a man is by no means the same thing as valuing or admiring his artistic output. No amount of sincerity or experience of personal tragedy can compensate for lack of aesthetic judgment or ability to put that judgment into effect. What is astonishing about so many of the mad artists in the Prinzhorn Collection is precisely their sense of design, of proportion, of color. Unlike Richard Dadd, the famous artist who killed his father and spent the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane, very few of the artists represented in the Prinzhorn were artists, or were known to have any interest or aptitude for art, before their madness struck. It was as if their insanity stripped away a veneer and revealed a deeper layer of themselves.

The most famous of the artists, August Natterer (1868–1933), was an electrician who experienced a hallucinatory vision of the Last Judgment and thereafter never left the asylum world. For him it was indeed a last judgment; and he repeatedly drew, in different colors and with slight variations in design, a witch’s head against a background of a neat German village. The image seems to bear out, in a rather less ironic way, Miss Marple’s dictum that there is a great deal of wickedness in a village: For the paranoid, nothing is what it seems and everything is evil, even the air we breathe. But if Natterer’s imagination and thought were wild and undisciplined, his art was controlled and his use of color that of a master. Disordered intellect and disordered taste do not necessarily go hand in hand, nor is art’s power lessened because we cannot assent to the notions that it tries to express or that inspire it.

Other artist-lunatics were not as gifted, perhaps, as Natterer, but none of them failed to display a sense of form that did not arise from their education or training. Johann Knopf (1866–1910) was a baker’s apprentice, a worker in a cement factory, and a locksmith before Christ explained to him why he was persecuted, after which (in the asylum) he began to draw birds surrounded by micrographical texts explaining how he had suffered worse than Christ Himself: mad compositions of a strange beauty. Josef Forster (1878–1949), a paper-hanger, depicted himself as a higher man, able easily, with the help of very tall but thin and flimsy canes, to fly through the air, with the caption “This is to show that when somebody’s body does not weigh anything any more, they no longer need to complain about their weight and are able to glide very quickly through the air”: an ethereal image that now serves as the museum’s logo. He also drew, in crayon, a magnificent self-portrait, a deeply haunting depiction of his deeply haunted state of mind. Jakob Mohr, a farmer and itinerant salesman whose date of death is unknown, was not artistically gifted, but even his black and white drawings of mind-influencing machines (including the wireless-organic-positive-polar device) and the rays they emanate toward their victims in order to implant thoughts in them or remove thoughts from them, surrounded by micrographical explanatory texts of deep madness, show an instinctive understanding or sense of composition. You could mount an exhibition, incidentally, with the title of “Madness and Micrographia.”

Since my first visit to the Prinzhorn, I have remained interested, in a casual and non-scholarly way, in the visual art of the mad. Recently in Paris I happened to leaf through the pages of the weekend supplement of Le Monde in which, at the end, there was a single-page article about an exhibition of the work of James Edward Deeds at Galerie Christian Berst, a commercial gallery specializing in “outsider” art. The accompanying picture enticed me to visit it.

The story of James Edward Deeds (1908–87) is both tragic and moving. He was born in the Canal Zone and lived there until his family moved to his father’s native Missouri, where they owned a farm. The father was by all accounts a violent authoritarian, the son rebellious and difficult. At any rate, he got on so badly with the rest of the family that they built a cabin for him to live in on the bank of a river that ran through the property. Girls were said to be afraid of him, and one day he had such a violent quarrel with his younger brother, Clay, that he chased him with a hatchet. Committed (at the age of seventeen or twenty-five according to different accounts) to a school for the feeble-minded, he later was transferred to State Hospital No. 3 in Nevada, Missouri, then the largest public building in the state. He remained there until 1973, when he was sent to an old-age home where he died six years later.

For several years after 1941, while in the state asylum, Deeds—like all the other patients—received electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) twice a week without anaesthesia. Patients in one of the hospitals in which I once worked used to call ECT the Electric Breakfast because they were not allowed to eat or drink until they had undergone it (by then the procedure was done under anaesthesia and was a good deal less brutal than in Deeds’s day). Later in his hospitalization, the ECT was stopped and Deeds received instead modern-era tranquillizers, most probably chlorpromazine. Chlorpromazine was used in the prison in which I worked and was known as “the liquid cosh.” Certainly a photograph of Deeds, taken with his brother in the hospital grounds, shows him to be mentally vacant, his mouth open, his body slouched in that position that very sluggish people adopt when they are at rest. A photograph of him as a boy aged seven shows him to have been an unattractive child with a wild and malevolent look. My guess is that he was intellectually disabled with a disposition, partly caused by his environment and partly congenital, to aggression, who later became psychotic and unmanageable, his ferocious treatment eventually subduing him completely.

At some point during his stay in the hospital, Deeds produced a series of 283 colored drawings, which he himself bound into an album of eccentric binding. This album was rescued from a rubbish bin in Springfield, Missouri, in 1970 by a fourteen-year-old, who kept it for forty years before posting photographs of the drawings on the website of a local historian. Seeing them, a Kansas book dealer bought the entire album, sold it to a collector in St Louis, who sold it to a New York dealer. Now some of the pages of the album, with drawings on both sides of the page, were on sale in Paris for €12,500 ($16,700) each.

For quite a long time the identity of the artist remained unknown. The first book dedicated to his work, reproducing all his drawings, was published before that identity was discovered. The essay that accompanies the drawings reveals very clearly some of the pitfalls of art history where documentary evidence is still lacking.

The drawings were done on State Hospital No. 3 printed invoice forms from the years 1900–09. Not surprisingly, therefore, the essayist was in little doubt that the artist was a patient at that hospital. But he then made a mistake. Many of the pictures are portraits, all of them wearing fashions from the Victorian era or Edwardian at the latest. There are also pre-war cars (Great War, that is) and boats of a similar vintage. All this indicated to the essayist that the pictures were drawn about 1910, having decided which he proceeded to explain away what would otherwise have given him a clue.

Around the portraits are drawn coloured frames, inner and outer. Above the outer frame around a lady in Victorian dress holding up a stylized bouquet of flowers in one hand and pointing to it with another, appears a word in elegant, colored-in, block capital letters: ECTLECTRC

At an angle some distance from this, in the same lettering but much smaller, is the word PENCIL, accompanied by a slender pencil. Not knowing who the author of the drawings was, the essayist called him “The Electric Pencil.”

The letters “ECT” appear on a picture of a seven-story brick building of late-nineteenth-century style, between the first and second stories. (The size of the building suggests the scale on which ECT was performed.) And one of the portraits is titled “ECT.”

The author of the essay concludes not that his dating of the pictures must have been mistaken—ECT was introduced in the 1930s, and in State Hospital No. 3 not until 1941—but that the ECTs that appear twice in the word ECTLECTRC, once on the building, and once under a portrait do not refer to electroconvulsive therapy, because the pictures date from 1910. This is a warning to us all about the dangers of fitting facts to our preconceived or dearly held theories. And the author is fortified in his conclusion by asserting that the artist was “dyslexic” so that his ECTs must be a spelling error for something else, or merely meaningless.

The drawings are naïve, of course, and untutored, but they display considerable graphic skill. The many boats in the series are of most peculiar designs that one would have supposed were the products of fantasy were they not in fact the products of childhood memory, for such peculiar boats did ply the canal as it was being built and the drawings are accurate representations of them. Deeds, then, had something of the idiot savant about him: Certainly I could draw nothing from memory preceding my fifth birthday.

The portraits, the landscapes, and the animals that he draws represent his world well before 1925, when he was first admitted to an institution, and when his life, in a certain sense, came to an end. Some of the drawings, at least, must have been done after 1941, when ECT came to the hospital—probably all of them, since they were carefully numbered and appear to be done on the same cache of old invoice forms. They seem to represent Deeds’s attempt to live imaginatively in the prelapsarian, that is to say pre-commitment to hospital, world of his childhood and early adolescence. Whether Deeds drew constantly from the time of his admission or continued to draw after the completion of the book, will never be known unless further drawings come by chance to light. As late as 1990, when the elegant central building of the hospital was demolished (to make way for what, exactly?), artworks by old patients were being thrown away.

One should not exaggerate the artistic merits of Deeds’s work, of course. If I had not known anything of the author’s biography, would I have found it so moving? Yet the first thing that struck me when I saw a reproduction of one of his portraits (Miss Elvira) in Le Monde was its taste, its delicacy in excess of its technical accomplishment. The design and proportions were correct, the coloration restrained and subtle and without the garish crudity of so many graphic productions today. It may have been that the crayons with which he was supplied by his family were themselves subdued in color, of pastel shades rather than primary colors. But Deeds employed quite subtle shading, for example of the pink of his ladies’ cheeks. Given that he knew only two environments in his life, the Canal Zone while the canal was still under construction, and the farm in Missouri, it is unlikely that his aesthetic education had been very extensive by the time the doors of institutions closed forever behind him. One might almost call his good taste instinctive.

Could it be that, just as we should ask where wealth and not poverty comes from, we should wonder more often about the development of bad taste rather than good? Generally speaking, we think of good taste as educated rather than instinctive, and bad taste as instinctive rather than educated, but perhaps we have it the wrong way round.

I have noticed, for example, that graffiti vandals tend to deface ugly spaces, ugly buildings, and ugly surfaces. (Lisbon, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is, alas, an exception to this rough rule). It might be that ugly spaces are more accessible to them, since generally they do not live in the more graceful areas of cities; yet this cannot be the whole explanation, because part of their “aesthetic” is to plant their hideous lettering on the most inaccessible of surfaces, for example the sides of high bridges. If they can reach such surfaces, they can reach beautiful buildings relatively short distances away. They show considerable ingenuity in defacing the inaccessible: a proof, if any were needed, that ingenuity, like originality and bravery, are not virtues in themselves, indeed are more like vices when in the service of ill-intention. Therefore the defacement of beauty is well within their compass, but they do not do it, and thus, destructive as their activities are (very little is so ugly that it cannot be made uglier), they show powers of aesthetic discrimination, in short instinctive good taste.

Having traveled extensively in both the rural and the urban Third World, I have noticed another interesting phenomenon. Peasants, no matter how poor or close to subsistence, exhibit an instinctive good taste in, for example, their habitations. The huts, whether of mud or straw, of impoverished Africa are almost always of graceful form and are gracefully disposed in relation to one another. Where huts are painted, they are in colors and designs that are pleasing to the eye. The peasant arts of India are likewise instinctual in their taste.

But when individuals from these areas move to the city, however, they quickly lose their powers of discrimination, or rather what they consider beautiful changes. It is not that they lose the desire for beauty or decoration as such, it is that their taste that turns bad, as milk or wine turns sour: And for all intents and purposes their taste never recovers. Suddenly they are attracted to the crude, garish, and grossly sentimental. They have, in a sense, been educated. They have eaten of the Tree of the Fruit of Kitsch. Thereafter, if taste is to be recovered, it requires re-education rather than education. In fact, it is an instance of anamnesis.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 86
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