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by N. F. Karlins
|Images that are phantasmagoric, sexual and distorted, elegantly ordered, scruffily sprawling -- all are found in the utterly absorbing display of works by psychiatric patients from the famous Prinzhorn Collection of the University of Heidelberg, Germany. "The Prinzhorn Collection: Traces upon the Wunderblock," which was recently on view at the Drawing Center in SoHo (Apr. 15-June 10, 2000), contains more than 200 drawings and books, out of thousands more.
Assembled by the psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, the collection features art made by artists and non-artists living in mental institutions in Germany, Austria and Switzerland between 1890 and 1920. Prinzhorn published a still-influential book on his Collection of Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922.
The collection has influenced artists, philosophers and even politicians from the 1920s to today. Painters from Klee and Ernst to the Abstract Expressionists studied the works or were influenced by seeing them in Prinzhorn's book.
The "wunderblock" was a toy that allowed a child to draw or write by impressing marks through a plastic sheet into a waxed surface below. When the sheet was lifted, the marks disappeared, yet their traces remained on the waxed block. Freud used this as a metaphor for the unconscious. It is surely apt as a description for the exposed selves uncovered in these drawings and books.
It's difficult to imagine not being moved by the gentle strokes of Carl Lange's pencil limning A proof of divine justice as against human injustice, with its outline of a shoe with a human head, animals and other symbols, or not feeling frizzled by looking at Jakob Mohr's electric Proofs, not being captivated by the strange face in August Natterer's double-sided Witch's Head.
Many of the pieces seem less unusual and would be right at home in any SoHo or Chelsea Gallery, especially with today's interest in the body, gender and -- of course -- sex. Oskar Herzberg's use of brilliant color in his phallic fantasy Castrati would be snapped up right away today, as would the Untitled watercolor by the unidentified "Katz," if anyone could conjure up anything comparable to its gutsy mix of sexual representation, abstraction and gestural energy.
The sepia-toned photo of Katherina Detzel showing her life-size dummy brings mind Oskar Kokoschka's anatomically correct life-size doll that he dragged around with him after his break-up with Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav. Was there something strange in the water during the second decade of the 20th century in Europe?
Josef Heinrich Grebing's numbers chart foreshadows Hanne Darboven, while his color chart anticipates Alfred Jensen's grids.
Even when a piece is not a great work of art, it may be as emotionally charged, like Emma Hauck's heart-rending obsessive love-letter to her husband, Sweetheart Come.
Now that Outsider, contemporary folk, or self-taught art -- whatever we are calling this formerly neglected area -- has been accepted as an important chapter in 20th-century art (if you do not believe me, just look at "The Raw and the Cooked" at the Museum of Modern Art's current "Making Choices"), it is only proper to acknowledge the debt we owe such institutions as the Prinzhorn Collection.
Thankfully, this body of work will be getting a new home in 2001 in Heidelberg, where the next step -- critically sifting through and evaluating this mountain of material -- can begin to take place.
Downstairs in the small foyer leading to the temporary exhibition galleries were just four drawings -- Leonardo da Vinci's Apostle (possibly as study for The Last Supper); a seated male nude by Michelangelo, all turbulent muscle; and a lovely Madonna and child by Raphael. They hung in a row. At a right angle, Picasso's huge (about 2 ½ feet tall) Cubist Head of a Woman seemed to look down on them, benevolently of course. All were knockouts. And that's only for starters.
In one room, four Dürers were grouped together, including his exquisite Head of an Old Man. Hendrick Goltzius's delicately drawn Self-Portrait is one of the most sensitive and revealing of likenesses, the tonal gradations small miracles.
In the second room, devoted to mostly 19th and 20th-century pieces, the wonderful Klimt and Schiele sheets might have been expected, but there was also a wildly exuberant Jackson Pollock black ink, one of his very best.
Austria's 19th-century landscapist Thomas Ender was another unanticipated pleasure. His watercolor The Matterhorn Viewed from the Gornergrat, with its tourists admiring icy peaks, may not be in the same league as the Raphael or Dürers, but it succeeded in sending a shiver down my spine anyway.
"Michelangelo to Picasso: Master Drawings from the Albertina , Vienna" was on view at the Frick Collection through June 18, 2000.
The best known, primarily in Europe, is Ody (Odette) Saban, born to Sephardic Jewish parents in Istanbul. Subject to hallucinations, Saban considers herself a shaman. Her complex black ink-on-paper drawings, like the roughly five-foot-high Popoloka et Moi (1996), feature nudes coupling, filled and surrounded by other smaller realistic and grotesques figures, all obsessively decorated with patterns and marks. This large piece is $7,000, while a smaller ink and watercolor is available for $2,400.
Armand Avril creates tableaux in low relief from clothespins and cork. His La Mere à Cassis (1995), a tray-like assortment of his signature cork skulls, is embellished with metal, including bits of aluminum can pull-tabs and metal from the top of champagne corks. His works range in price from $3,200 to $5,600.
Called "La plume de la patience," Michael Roux makes grids of hundreds to thousands of miniscule boxes filled with his own geometric script, an amalgam of Hebrew letters and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics. The results look like spectral lace or a small-scale, totally abstract black-and-white works by a Chuck Close manqué. A small piece can be had for $900, his largest for $6,800.
Soaking crumpled paper in china ink and impressing or stamping it onto newspaper or cardboard is how Alain Lacoste makes his drawings. The denser pieces are best with figures, large and small, shape shifting amid other forms like birds and crowned heads in his Promethee Moi (1992), priced at only $500.
Mini-totems in colored clay, arrayed in grids under glass, by René Julien and Martine Balata, have the look of Neolithic fertility figures, recently dug up, cleaned, and ready for examination. In Idols #1 (1998), the figures have been stabbed by red-tipped sticks. Haunting at $8,400.
The show is up through June 24th.
And at the National Academy of Design (1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th St.) is "Stuart Davis in Gloucester." A large room of early paintings charts the way Davis developed his own brand of Cubism. You can see how the artist wrestled with ways to flatten, bend and blend shapes. Each oil forms part of an exciting continuum of experiments. His drawings, in another gallery, complement the main action.
Also at the Academy is a small show of splashy watercolors by Charles Webster Hawthorne, founder of the Cape Ann School and better known for his paintings.
Both exhibitions through July 30th.