The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art by Charlie English

How should art be judged? Does it stand alone, or is the artist’s character essential to an assessment? Take, for instance, Paul Klee and Oskar Herzberg, two German painters who produced similar works during the interwar period. Their background, however, was decidedly different: Klee was an established artist; Herzberg a schizophrenic confined to an asylum.

Adolf Hitler found the similarities in their work disturbing. The insane, he felt, could not, by definition, be artists. The fact that Klee painted like a madman was thus symptomatic of German cultural decline. Expressionist art was “the morbid excrescences of insane and degenerate men”, Hitler proclaimed. The solution was simple: artists like Klee were hounded into exile, while those like Herzberg were murdered.

After 1918, artists yearned for a style suited to a shattered world. “Repelled by the slaughterhouses of the world war,” the Dadaist sculptor Hans Arp wrote, “we searched for an elementary art that would … save mankind from the furious madness of these times.” Insanity became a favorite theme.

“The schizophrenic postwar age required a schizophrenic postwar art,” Charlie English writes in his book. “Madness had never been in such vogue.” Salvador Dalí spent the 1920s desperately trying to go mad but, having failed, developed instead a style that emulated madness. “The only difference between myself and a madman,” he declared, “is that I am not mad.”

Salvador Dalí spent the 1920s desperately trying to go mad but, having failed, developed instead a style that emulated madness.

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is a superbly told story of worlds colliding. Artists who explored the darkest corners of the human soul were no longer welcome when Germany embarked on Hitlerite spiritual purification. “Art’s only real purpose was as a political weapon, a tool for social control,” English describes the Nazi approach.

In Hitler’s view “art was Germany’s social glue, its battle standard, its promised land, its claim to superiority, and its future legacy”. There was no room for ugliness or distortion; art had to be beautiful and heroic, with “deep reverence for the accomplishments of the past”. In this “relentless war of cleansing”, painters were forbidden from using colors that did not exist in the natural world. Some artists, like Emil Nolde, were ordered to stop painting entirely.

There’s so much that’s wonderful about this book; it’s hard to know where to start heaping praise. It is by turns intriguing, tragic, horrifying and occasionally funny. I was sad when I finished it, a feeling I usually only get from novels.

English, formerly a Guardian journalist and the author of the acclaimed The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, writes in a carefully controlled and phlegmatic fashion, allowing outrage to emerge from the events themselves, rather than from the manner of their telling. He concentrates on three individuals — Hans Prinzhorn, Franz Karl Bühler and Hitler — to explore the nature of madness and the perplexities of modern art.

Artists in Asylum

Prinzhorn was a physician, art historian and professionally trained singer who, after the First World War, began assembling a huge collection of “insane art”. He scoured asylums for examples of patients’ work to investigate the relationship between madness and artistic expression. The pieces collected, on show at a gallery in Heidelberg, seem to “bubble up from the depths of the human psyche”. A curator said: “Remarkable worlds opened before me, drew me into their power … took away my equilibrium and made me dizzy.”

Asylum artists used whatever was available — scraps of newspaper, menu cards, loo paper, old paper bags. Sculptures were made from chewed bread or carved from broken furniture. Katharina Detzel graduated from bread dough miniatures to a full-sized mannequin that she called Man. When angry she beat him; when happy she’d dance with him. Josef Forster’s paintings were inspired by his belief that he could become a god by consuming his bodily excretions. He painted a picture of a weightless person running through the air at great speed.

Through studying these individuals, Prinzhorn hoped to explore the psychic processes behind artistic creation. “Only then,” English writes, “could ‘mad’ and ‘sane’ art be directly compared and light be shed on the problem of art’s relationship to insanity.”

English examines 15 insane artists discovered in Prinzhorn’s collection, among them August Natterer, whose work clearly influenced Max Ernst.

Bühler was perhaps the most accomplished of these artists; his work brings to mind Dürer and Grünewald, while a self-portrait is suggestive of Munch. Originally a highly imaginative metal craftsman, he exhibited at the world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893. After his return he developed severe schizophrenia, often manifested as paranoia, and was confined to an asylum for the last 40 years of his life. His artwork has been widely praised, but he’s also important because his hospitalization spanned a period when Germany’s policy toward the insane moved from benign neglect to sterilization and eventually to murder.

In Hitler’s view “art was Germany’s social glue, its battle standard, its promised land, its claim to superiority, and its future legacy.”

Hitler is Hitler; there’s not much new that can be said, yet English somehow does. He was of course an artist, or at least aspired to be one. He drew “pleasant little pictures” — scrupulously precise but devoid of feeling. One nevertheless wonders how different the world might have been if the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna had offered him a place when he applied in 1907. Incandescent with rage at being rejected, he called the academicians “old-fashioned [and] fossilised” with “no understanding for true artistry”. His subsequent attacks upon the artistic establishment, in particular the modernists, was a long and carefully plotted revenge.

Hitler’s assault upon art was woven into his racial theories; art was his barometer of cultural decline. Modernism, he believed, was evidence that Nordic blood had become tainted by inferior components such as from the Jews and Bolsheviks. It was perfectly logical, at least in his warped mind, that expressionist works resembled “insane art”, since the art world had descended into degeneracy.

In one of his first speeches as chancellor, he promised that “blood and race will once more become the source of artistic intuition”. Joseph Goebbels was ordered to assemble an exhibition, “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), which included pieces from Prinzhorn’s collection. Its purpose was to illustrate the depths to which the art world had sunk and the money wasted on “modernistic horrors”. The “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, which ran between July and November 1937, attracted more than three million visitors.

“Degenerate” art was purged from the museums, with much of it immediately destroyed. The work of famous artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin was sold abroad, but at depressed prices, since buyers didn’t want to contribute lavishly to the Nazi regime. English reckons that the liquidation of one of the world’s greatest modernist collections hardly raised enough to pay for two Panzer tanks.

Meanwhile, German artists understood that they were no longer welcome. Many, such as Klee, Max Ernst and Oskar Kokoschka, already had an international reputation, so they easily found places where they were appreciated.

The author reckons that the liquidation of one of the world’s greatest modernist collections hardly raised enough to pay for two Panzer tanks.

Not so the Prinzhorn artists, who had nowhere to go. Bühler languished in Emmendingen asylum, forgotten, incoherent but still artistically productive. In the final sections of the book English moves seamlessly from art to genocide, describing Aktion T4, the program begun in 1939. With brutal efficiency extermination sites were prepared, carbon monoxide stockpiled and transport arranged. Asylum directors provided lists of those deemed Lebensunwertes Leben — life unworthy of life.

The unfortunate were quickly transported to “hospitals” where, at some point between gassing and cremation, their gold fillings were harvested and their possessions stolen. Death certificates were delayed by a month to allow the fraudulent collection of the victim’s living expenses from local authorities.

Aktion T4 easily met its target of killing 70,000 mentally ill people, with perhaps another 130,000 dying of neglect or starvation. The program provided Hitler with proof that industrialized genocide was feasible. It seems inconceivable that locals did not know what was going on at these sites, since the smell of burning flesh was so pervasive. Children called the buses that brought the victims Mordkiste — murder boxes. A playground jibe went: “You’re so dumb, you’re going to bake in the Hadamar oven!” The town of Hadamar had a psychiatric hospital that became a site of industrialized murder.

One of the first to be murdered was Bühler. He was an artist, but also insane. In Hitler’s warped mind a madman could not be an artist. One senses a certain irony. In 1924, while incarcerated at Landsberg prison for his part in the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler, the wannabe artist, received a visit from the prison psychiatrist Alois Maria Ott. He concluded that he was “a morbid psychopath … prone to hysteria … with an inclination toward a magical-mystical mindset”. In other words Hitler had something in common with Bühler. Except Bühler was the better artist.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and the author of several books, including The Bomb: A Life and The Seventies Unplugged