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THE MIRACLES AND MADNESS GALLERY

Hitler’s War on Art, Insanity, and Modernism 

English, Charlie. 336 pages $28. Random House, 2022.

The world seemed to have gone insane in the wake of World War I. It’s no surprise that artists were eager to reflect the zeitgeist at a time when Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was all the rage. British novelist Charlie English says, “The schizophrenic postwar era needed a schizophrenic postwar art.” “Madness had never been more popular.” It was also popular in politics, where a failed artist named Adolf Hitler was gaining popularity.

In his very fascinating new book, The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, English, a former writer with London’s The Guardian, mixes the themes of “crazy art” and “mad politics” together. As he clearly shows, Hitler’s determination to eradicate “degenerate art” was inextricably connected to his determination to eradicate “life unworthy of life”—first and foremost, those considered mentally or physically unfit, including many of the so-called “degenerate artists.”

Hans Prinzhorn, a German physician with a PhD in art history who started working for the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic in 1919, is the subject of most of English’s narrative. Prinzhorn himself described himself as a “unstable psychopath with hysterical characteristics.” Prinzhorn got fascinated with collecting the amazing work created by some of the mentally ill patients in Heidelberg, maybe because he viewed himself in similar terms, and he quickly cast a broader net to include the production of the talented in other asylums across Germany. His collection, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, was released in 1922 and has since become a landmark work. Avant-garde painters such as Paul Klee and Salvador Dali flocked to see this “monumental accomplishment,” as English puts it.

“The Gallery of Miracles and Madness” The chronically sick were seen as a societal burden by the Nazis; one propaganda piece (above) said that it cost 60 Reichsmarks to care for people like Franz Karl Buhler (below). (Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House and Neues Volk magazine)

“The Gallery of Miracles and Madness” Buhler, Franz Karl (Photograph courtesy of Stadtarchiv Offenburg)

“The Gallery of Miracles and Madness” Franz Karl Buhler painted this frightening self-portrait while in a mental institution; he was murdered by the Nazis in 1940. (Inv. No. 3018, Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital Heidelberg)

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he declared war on “the final components of our cultural disintegration,” which included all contemporary art ascribed to Jews, Bolsheviks, and the “crazy.” Soon after, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels staged massive exhibits of “degenerate art,” which included pieces from Prinzhorn’s collection. Millions of people came to see them, many of whom probably came to appreciate the art they were meant to demonize.

Prinzhorn died of typhus in June 1933, at the age of 47, after toying with Nazism for a short time. As a result, he was never informed that several of his star painters, as well as other mental inmates, died in the first makeshift gas chambers. The tactics employed in the battle against mentally and physically “defective” people will soon be used against Jews during the Holocaust. This indicated that there will be much more grandiose craziness to come.

  1941: The Year Germany Lost the War is written by Andrew Nagorski (2019).

 

  • penguin history books
  • random house history
  • prinzhorn collection
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