By Christian Jung (English Translation by Regina Wick, Repros: Collection Prinzhorn, Heidelberg)

Heidelberg (Germany). Psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933) assembled almost 5000 pieces of art between 1919 and 1921 in Heidelberg, which had been made by about 435 psychiatric patients in the German-speaking parts of Europe between 1845 and 1920.


The Nazis had abused, and then destroyed, parts of the collection for the „Feme” exhibition about degenerate art. But since the 1980s the collection has been back in the hands of scientists, where it has been growing again. So far there have been no works by victims of “NS-Rassenhygiene” (racial hygiene), using their own fate as the subject of their art, but from March 18th this year the Sammlung Prinzhorn museum will be hosting a sensational exhibition: for the first time on display is a series of drawings by Wilhelm Werner (1898-1940). Inmate of a Nazi psychiatric clinic, Werner became victim of compulsory sterilisation sometime between 1934 and 1938. In 1940 he was murdered by the Nazis. An artistically inclined witness to history, Werner communicates imaginaries pertaining to his sufferings at the clinic, “Heilanstalt Werneck” near Schweinfurt, on 30 sheets.

“Two years ago the drawings were shown to me by a couple. They were done with pencil on the back of an order book and in bad shape. It was only toward the end of 2008 when I realized the true historical and artistic value of the sheets and bought them for our collection”, says Thomas Röske, head of the museum.

Because he had signed the book cover and the first drawing with his name it was possible, with the help of the Werneck register, to identify Wilhelm Werner as the author of the drawings. Born in 1898 he had been diagnosed with “idiocy” and brought to the psychiatric clinic. He was unmarried, catholic and without vocational training. Since his records are lost, all that is certain is that, alongside other patients, he was brought to Pirna-Sonnenschein death camp on October 6th 1940 to be gassed as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme “T4”. His drawings remain, however, because one of the administrative officers took them and later gave them to his daughter.

“He was fascinated by the pictures and privately showed them around time and again, which explains why they are in such a poor state”, says Röske. The diagnosis of “idiocy” (the most severe form of “amentia” at the time) can well be doubted. As for the “true” problems, we can only speculate that Werner might have been deaf or “autistic”.


In his impressive and shocking drawings Werner deals with his own sterilisation, which he calls “STERELATION”. He depicts himself as a friendly but rather passive clown doll, attached to machines, whose genitals are being manipulated by nurses (with swastika armbands) and a doctor. Simplified as they are, the images resemble illustrations in children’s books, but they also contain complex symbols of suffering with Werner repeatedly appearing to allude to the martyrdom of Christ and several saints. What is more, he even anticipates his own murder. One drawing shows patients with jelly bag caps sitting happily in a coach that is adorned with a swastika and a banner reading “STERELATION”. On the roof of the bus, which resembles the kind of propaganda vehicles widely used in Nazi-Germany, there sits a nurse presenting two testicles on a plate.

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Medical historian Maike Rotzoll considers the drawings “extraordinary and unique documentary evidence created by victims themselves”. Paintings or drawings by victims of compulsory sterilisation showing what was done to them had been unknown to her as yet.

“Until now drawings depicting the act of compulsory sterilisation, and the artistic handling of this truly traumatic experience, simply did not exist. That is why their discovery is so sensational. Of course, there are letters by victims written shortly after the sterilisation, which provide a window into the victims’ perspectives, and there are some poems, but drawings have been unknown so far”, says Maike Rotzoll, who has long been working on the history of patients in Nazi-Germany.

The 45-year-old historian currently researches 3,000 files of psychiatric patients who fell victim of the NS-euthanasia-plan “T4”, by which 7,000 people were systematically gassed between 1940 and 1941. Almost half of them were women. Wilhelm Werner too was killed in the course of this SS-led programme. Overall, “Rassenwahn” (race ideology) in the Third Reich was responsible for the compulsory sterilisation of about 400,000 people and the murder of perhaps 300,000 people, most of which were patients of psychiatric clinics.

The drawings will be shown in a cabinet of the collection Prinzhorn until June 6th 2010. Opening hours of the museum of the Heidelberg University Hospital are: Tuesdays and Thursday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm, and Wednesdays from 11am to 8pm. On Mondays the museum is closed.

collection Prinzhorn of the Heidelberg University Hospital (Sammlung Prinzhorn des Universitätsklinikums Heidelberg) – Voßstraße 2, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany.
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