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Dr. Thomas Roeske

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Director of the Prinzhorn Collection, Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik, Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg


Roeske, Foto von Michael Doh, NAR


Interview of May 12, 2009 with Dr. Birgit Teichmann


The origin of the Prinzhorn Collection goes back to the year 1919: at that time, Hans Prinzhorn (1886- 1933) Psychiatrist and Art Historian, was an assistant doctor at the Heidelberg University Hospital and asked the directors of psychiatric institutions home and abroad in a circular letter to send him creative works of their patients.


Mr. Röske, can you tell us something about the beginnings of the Prinzhorn Collection?

The origin of the collection goes further back than 1919: at the end of the 19th century, Emil Kraepelin, who we know for his fundamental division of mental illnesses, already started to collect works- mainly works from Heidelberg. This was then continued even before the first world war. The works were kept, works of men and women from Heidelberg and Wiesloch and only after the first world war did Karl Wilmanns, the new director of Psychiatry in Heidelberg, have the idea to hire someone to systematically expand the collection: Hans Prinzhorn, who received more than 5000 works to Heidelberg with help of the mentioned appeal.


Therefore the name of the collection: the Prinzhorn Collection?

Actually the collection should be named the Prinzhorn Gathering. One automatically thinks, when hearing the word collection, that Hans Prinzhorn searched systematically. But he almost took everything that was sent to him. In fact the collection exceeded Prinzhorns capacity. There are many works which he did not appreciate and could not recognize as art. For example the little jacket of Agnes Richter, which is covered all over with stitched text. That is not even mentioned in his book. We would actually say that it is a masterpiece. But for Prinzhorn it probably was just handcraft because Richter made the jacket as a dressmaker. The message, that was the foreground, did not interest him. He was interested in the original, direct expression of the subconscious mind.
Works, which are remembered by most people when they see them, are the letters of Emma Hauck. In those letters she repeats the begging words “Herzschatzi komm” so often one upon the other in all directions, that it results in a grey blacking of the surface. The frustration becomes visible so to speak, in this amalgam of unreadable lines.
Prinzhorn shows one of those pages in his book. However, it is upside down, with the wrong allocation of the author and only as an example of scribbling with first tendencies of order.
Even today we can still discover many new things in the Heidelberg collection and that makes it so rich!


How can one imagine life of patients in institutions in those days in comparison to today?

At that time, people in a psychic crisis went to an institution and often stayed there for the rest of their lifes, 20, 30 or 40 years. Some of the patients started painting at a late age- often after a very long time of silence. In those days the common image of long-term patients was one of a crouching, autistic patient with whom no real communication was possible. Even at this late stage, some patients suddenly started to become artistically active. Today we think, it might have been a last rise up, a wish to communicate, that looks for other ways to communicate, maybe even an reactivation of remembered abilities.

The situation today is different. Today medication can help patients out of the acute phase relatively fast and the length of a stay in an psychiatric institution is substantially shorter. The ones where the limitations continue, live in residential care homes. For example Vanda- Vieira Schmidt in Berlin. She draws on reams of DinA4 papers, until today more than 700.000 sheets, with whom she thinks, she can magically fight off the evil in this world. For a long time no one noticed anything because on the weekends when the caretakers were not there, they build a line and carried the sheets into the basement. The basement then was full of stacks of paper. When the stacks were discovered, they were puzzled on how to deal with them and how to evaluate it. But then one caretaker said: “Hold on, is this art? I will ask the Prinzhorn Collection”. We then exhibited this tremendous and creative work for world-peace for two years in Heidelberg. 
In the psychiatric institutions today, you actually have therapists or doctors who appreciate the creativity of their patients and in most cases, the patient himself highly appreciates his creativity and therefore keeps his own works.


What makes art of psychiatric experienced so special?

The historical works deliver a perspective that has otherwise not survived. A perspective of people who are excluded from society back onto society. We hardly have other testimony on how they were feeling and what they were thinking. And the diversity, as it is presented here in this collection, is nowhere else to be found. One gives these people a voice that is otherwise unheard by showing their works. Many of these works are so intriguingly original and often so lapidary- not trying to- that one is simply amazed. The works develop their own esthetical quality. When you attend to these works, you get a different view on what is considered art in our society. You notice that what is considered art is very much ideologically charged. We expect certain things from art. The Prinzhorn collection delivers many more aspects on the life of the individual and life in society more than art can do. That is why I find it very exciting and as an art historian the collection as a challenge.


In the context of the “NAR Seminars” on the 9. July 2009 you will talk about Gudrun Bierski, an artist who extensively dedicated herself to art after a nervous crisis. How did you get hold of her pictures? 

Gudrun Bierski died 2006 at the age of 80. Her two nephews, the successors, thought to get a removal company because the apartment was completely cluttered, one room was inaccessible. But they had a guilty conscience because their aunt was artistically active throughout her entire life. They brought me and the curator of the collection in and we were immediately excited and took almost everything that was there. Paintings, knotted carpets and many notes and books with word settings like “Rucksackfrühstück” or “Im Teich Bartfarben”. Bierski probably started it because she wanted to remember things, sometimes there are names that she wrote down. But the system behind the writing cannot be comprehended and therefore the results become a poetic quality.
Apparently the carpets contain encoded messages, there are notes in which it becomes clear that Bierski used combinations of certain colours as letters or complete words. With a lot of effort, you  would probably be able to read the carpets.
Then there are a number of paintings. Since the 60s Bierski coated all paintings with white papier mâché. Sometimes this papier mâché proliferates into the painting. And there are papier mâché objects with strange organic forms that you can place on the table- first unattractive but still fascinating.


Was the lack of money the reason for these papier mâché frames? Maybe Bierski made them herself because she did not have the opportunity or means to buy appropriate frames?

It could be that it gave the impulse but these frames then developed a mind of its own, they seem opulently and as said, they grow into the pictures, sometimes line systems go out of the picture into the frame, integrating them so to speak. I think here, creative motives play as much of a role as maybe the saving of money. But again, they leave an arbitrary impression and most who see these works will first think that they look very strange, creepy or dirty. Maybe at some point purposely done.


Altogether, how many works did you receive from her?

Overall there aren’t that many. We have about 50 works. Some were left at the family estate. The nephews were infected with our enthusiasm and kept some after all. They even compiled a kind of dossier that includes many vital information about the stages of life and the way of living of their aunt. It is very rare to have something like that. It happens on occasion that people give us things from relatives, but to keep notes about them takes- for whatever reason- too much effort. So Gudrun Bierski is a very good documented exception.


What kind of disease did Gudrun Bierski have?

A few years before her death she was diagnosed “Schizophrenia”. But it has been reported that she already started behaving strangely in the 50s and became an outsider, also in her linguistic appearance. She was always wearing hand-knitted woollen clothing regardless of the season- at one time even bathed with her woollen clothing in the Main river. One episode made its way into the newspaper: As she was giving a pastor a flower while he was preaching.


That means, that people are now eagerly awaiting your presentation to learn more about the live of Gudrun Bierski. Will we see works of Gudrun Bierski in an exhibition?

At the beginning of June, you will be able to see paintings and carpets of Gudrun Bierski in an exhibition at the Marburger Kunstverein. That is going to be the first time we will show a larger selection of 6 artists of the newer collection. So far, we have introduced Bierski once, at the exhibition “ The collection grows” two years ago.


Is there going to be a own Gudrun Bierski exhibition here in Heidelberg?

That would be nice but I would have to first find someone to intensify the work on this Oeuvre, who will go through all documents and tries to understand and decipher Bierskis cryptographies. Unfortunately the team of the museum does not have the time to intensively take care of all artists of the collection. Our alternating exhibitions are mostly themed, rarely dedicated to one artist.

However, next summer one extraordinary painter of the collection is getting a solo-show, our logo comes from this artist- Josef Forster (1878- 1949). Using his example, we will show what disciplines can contribute to the understanding of works from psychiatry experienced. Forster developed a tremendous coloured philosophy. His system- “Fad system” doctors would say- was so complex and interesting, that he was invited to Munich to talk about it in front of Kreapelin. It was about extreme autarchy, Forster wanted to feed himself only of his own excretions. On occasion he also painted with them.


Personal Data

Thomas Roeske was born in Hamburg in 1962. From 1981- 1986 he studied Art History, Musicology and Psychology at the University of Hamburg and received his doctoral degree after his alternative service at the “Rheinische Landesklinik Langenfeld” about Hans Prinzhorn. After one year as curator at the “Neuen Kunstverein Aschaffenburg” he became assistant at the Art History Institute of the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2000 Thomas Röske received a habilitation scholarship from the DFG for the project “ The individual in picture- The idea of self-impression in art and art-theory around 1800”. 2001 he became curator of the newly opened museum Prinzhorn collection. Since 2002 he is the Director of the museum.

Privately Thomas Röske is also a passionate collector but here in terms of a substantial CD collection, mainly of works from the late romantic era to contemporary music.

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Latest Revision: 2018-06-11
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