Nazi victims’ artworks come together in ‘Cause of Death: Euthanasia’

Konstantin Klees (1885-1940), a patient at the University of Heidelberg’s Psychiatric Hospital in Reichenau, signed the artworks he created while he was committed in the institution as «chief baker, patissier and merchant of colonial products.» Klees was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1912 with symptoms of paranoid delirium, ranting about hearing the voice of God and eating his own faeces. He ended up at Reichenau, where he showed signs of progress, becoming more involved in occupational therapy, reading Shakespeare and painting. Experts say the works he created are reminiscent of the Constructivists (who emerged in Russia in 1919), while other works, by virtue of their play on aspects of density and light, are believed to hold traces of movements that did not emerge in European art until the 1950s. On July 24, 1940, Klees’s doctors, pleased with his progress, transferred him to another facility, at Grafeneck, where he was put to death a few days later in a gas chamber under the Nazi’s Action T4 program of extermination of the disabled and mentally ill. Klees was one of many psychiatric patients whose only surviving testimony of their ordeals is art. His work, along with that of others, is the subject of an exhibition at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex that opens on Thursday, January 20. «Cause of Death: Euthanasia: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection» comprises 60 pieces from a large German collection of works by 18 artists/mental patients, who were the victims of Action T4 in the 1939-44 period. The man behind this collection, Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), was a psychiatrist and art historian who discerned in mental patients a certain artistic bent, while he also conducted research into artistic impulse and the schizophrenic’s sense of being as reflected in Expressionist art at the time. Shortly after the end of World War I, Prinzhorn began collecting artworks created at different psychiatric institutions around Germany, housing them at the University of Heidelberg. Other than being used as a therapy tool to help patients, the so-called «lunatic art» held surprises for art and mental health experts, while it also opened a new line of discourse into the origins of artistic expression. The Prinzhorn Collection comprises 17,000 works of art, explains Stelios Krasanakis, a psychiatrist, drama therapist and member of the Hellenic Psychiatric Association, which is one of the co-organizers of the Benaki show, along with the Goethe Institute. «This exhibition comprises 96 of these works, which belong to patients who were the first to experience the horror of the gas chambers. It was fortunate that Prinzhorn was an art historian as well as a psychiatrist, which meant that he had an eye for art and was able to introduce us to the question of the relationship between madness and art. I also think that it was not a matter of chance that these works were first displayed in 1922, and also became enormously successful, and that just two years later ‘The Manifesto of Surrealism’ was published.» Krasanakis notes that the creativity of the mentally ill is a major area of research. «You see,» he explains, «psychosis occasionally has a creative character and through this exhibition we can chart this area of the subconscious and of madness. This does not mean that a person who is mentally ill is automatically creative, an artist. Usually the work we see produced by mentally ill patients is extremely simplistic. We must also consider the fact that in Prinzhorn’s time, psychiatric drugs were not what they became from the 1950s onward. Ever since we started using anti-psychotic drugs we have not had the kind of impressive expressions of madness we once had. Today, a patient takes medication as soon as the delirium starts and then calms down. The patient feels relief, of course, but something is lost in the process. The interesting thing is that many of these works show joy, like a counterbalance to the prevailing misery of the era.» What happened to Prinzhorn, the father of this wonderful collection? After three failed marriages and being turned down for a tenured position at the university, he retired to Munich, where he lived with his aunt. He continued to write essays on lunacy and art, until he died of typhoid in 1933. Parallel events On Saturday, January 22, a one-day conference will be held at the Benaki Museum on «The Art of Confinement,» which begins at 11 a.m. and ends in the early evening with a dramatized reading based on the diary of Camille Claudel, a French sculptor and graphic artist who died in 1943 after having spent 30 years in a psychiatric asylum. On Friday, February 11, the Goethe Institute (14-16 Omirou, Kolonaki, tel 210.366.1000) will host another one-day conference, organized by the Hellenic Psychiatric Association, on «Creativity and Madness.» «Cause of Death: Euthanasia: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection» opens at the Benaki Museum Pireos Street Annex (138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 210.345.3111) on Thursday, January 20, at 8 p.m. and runs to March 13. Opening hours are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.