THIS IS an excellent documentary that deals with a spectrum of issues about an enormously difficult subject: the question of whether it’s right to assume that there is some inherent link between mental illness and artistic self-expression. 

As indicated by its subtitle, the film is in part an account of the work of a German psychiatrist and art historian named Hans Prinzhorn, who was the director of the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic in the 1920s. It was Prinzhorn who assembled a now-famous archive of more than 5000 examples of “psychotic art.” Known as the Prinzhorn Collection, it is made up of drawings and paintings produced (often with his encouragement) by 400 mental patients in European psychiatric hospitals, including some who were not amateurs but had practiced as artists prior to their commitment.

Prinzhorn was fascinated by the disarming ingenuity of these artworks, and in 1922, he wrote an influential book on the subject, titled Artistry of the Mentally Ill, in which he discussed the complexities of the work of ten “schizophrenic masters,” and compared the expressions of the “mentally deranged” to those of “primitive peoples.” As he was conducting his research, experimental Modern Art was on the ascendancy, bringing new attention to the art of children, self-taught naifs and other "outsider artists." But social engineering was also on the rise, and in 1937 (four years after Prinzhorn's death), when the Nazis condemned "degenerate art," they did so by mounting a public display in Munich in which works of Modern artists were paired with the work of psychotics, including pieces that had come from Prinzhorn's archive. 

Modernism survived the Third Reich as did (amazingly) the Prinzhorn Collection, while some of its artist and patients were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Rediscovered in the 1960s, the collection was shared internationally when, more than ten years ago, the Hayward Gallery in London mounted a traveling selection of works, documented by a full-color exhibition catalog called Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis (1998). I reviewed that publication when it came out, and, as I watched this engaging, informative film, I found it of help to go back to that book, in part because, to some extent, this is its cinematic equivalent, addressing (if far from resolving) many of the same questions and the same subject matter, from an updated, somewhat alternative view.

In well-made documentary films, there is an emotional richness that comes from the interweaving of sound tracks with fragments of gesture and motion and time. In that sense, this film's lasting impact comes in part from the skillful inclusion of interview clips with the current director of the Prinzhorn Collection, two current patient-artists, and various professionals from art and psychology. This enables the film to be more than an historical overview, to compare and contrast the past with the present, and to perplex us with unresolved questions about the nature of art (speaking of difficult subjects), the definition of mental stability, and the inherent connection (if any) between art and mental illness.—RB
Ballast Reviews
Reviews of books, films and other published materials
All reviews are copyright © by Roy R. Behrens
Between Madness and Art: The Prinzhorn Collection. A film by Christian Beetz. DVD, color, 75 mins, 2007. Available from Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, 21st Floor, Brooklyn NY 11201. Website:

more info back Home click here
for a guide to our websites