Cover Image: The Gallery of Miracles and Madness

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness

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Member Reviews

“The tragedy of contemporary art… was that it had lost touch with this primeval purpose. Artists were taught that there was an objective reality, a “correct” photographic version of the world, when there was no such thing.”

This is a harrowing, impeccably researched book which outlines Hitler’s war on modern art, which he viewed as a threat to German culture and civilization. Part of his hatred toward the modern art movement had to do with the fact that many modern artists derived inspiration from the works of psychiatric patients, whom Hitler viewed as a burden on the state and sought to exterminate.

Art, Hitler came to believe, was an eternal value that could be passed on through the… body of the pure race, over the generations. The German people would be genetically healthy when they produced “good” art, while “bad” art was a symptom of their malaise.”

People often speculate how the course of history may have changed had Hitler become a successful artist. Like the egomaniac that he was, Hitler considered himself to be the pinnacle of artistic talent. He was therefore shocked and enraged when struck by the reality of his artistic mediocrity, failing his art school entrance exams. His eradication of modern art and artists may have stemmed from a feeling of vengeance: “The artist-dictator… set aside his pencils and paints to work with humanity.”

It was heartbreaking to read about the hundreds and thousands of asylum patients and children – all helpless victims – who were gassed and starved to death, tortured, and experimented on as a precursor to Hitler’s “Final Solution.” History books often glaze over this disturbing segment of Hitler’s extermination policies (perhaps because the numbers don’t compare to the millions of Jewish victims), but the details are nevertheless vital to our understanding of the Holocaust, and how a mass extermination of German citizens was allowed to be carried out.

In short, I believe this to be essential reading for any art/history enthusiast, or anyone looking to delve into the more obscure details of Hitler’s regime.
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Somewhere near Boston is a place called The Museum of Bad Art. Part of this book is about if that idea were run by a very bitter and bland artist who grew up to become a dictator. This is a very serious book, but still has a small element of The Producers (the bad guy opens up a gallery intentionally trying to make all of the work in it look bad and it's quietly very popular, but since people are legitimately and understandably fearing for their lives they bite their tongues even as it becomes the most successful exhibit in history). 

That is a lot more to this book, but I'm sure other reviews will cover. 

Probably my favorite book I've gotten from NetGalley. An excellent story, well-told, well-structured, well-researched, super informative.
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This book is a magnificent journey through the horrific events of WWII by looking at the role art played in creating their propaganda and used to justify their actions. A must-read for history or art buffs and should be required reading for anyone studying social history.

Thank you NetGalley and Random House for the opportunity to read an advance reading copy.
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Wow, what a remarkable book!  Several sections includes graphic details of death  (especially gassing) at the hands of the Nazis due to "economic" reasons which justified their heinous euthanasia scheme on the mentally ill.  It was difficult to read but the subject very important to learn about.  

Psychiatric patients and those who were deemed imperfect were the first to be sterilized and then murdered, including many artists.  Modernist art had to go, too.  Billions of dollars worth of it in today's currency was burned and some was kept to be used as propaganda in displays which were free to the public (though interestingly, children were not admitted).  "Degenerate" art was placed adjacent to professional art and the public was asked to judge for themselves which was better.  What a cruel mockery!

Hitler's dream was to become an artist and was convinced he was but experts didn't agree.  He copied postcards and sold them to earn money to live.  When he came into power he only allowed art HE was interested in.  He took some of his favourite art with him underground.  Thankfully some of the "degenerate" art had been secreted away.

Hans Prinzhorn was a singer, doctor and art history expert.  He became fascinated by the art of the mentally ill (and many really who were forced into asylums as they were inconvenient) so gathered a collection including that of Buhler who desperately tried to escape from the asylum in which he was imprisoned.  Buhler dated his art which became a journal of sorts. Some of the "degenerate" art was judged to be on par with that of professionals. This new style of art became so attractive and revered that some professional artists such as Dali tried to force themselves to become insane in order to produce it.  Surrealism was born and Breton and Ernst capitalized on it.  Some of those who experienced war firsthand captured human suffering in art...and the medium wasn't always paper but whatever the artist could get their hands on.

Though Modernist art isn't for me, it is easy to see where it comes from and reflects what the artist felt at the time, often nightmarish anguish.

My sincere thank you to Random House Publishing for the privilege of reading this unforgettable book!
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This is a fascinating and compelling story of how one psychiatrist, intrigued by what art created by patients committed long term to mental hospitals might reveal about their conditions, collected hundreds of samples of the work and eventually published a book about his work. This book, had a staggering impact far beyond what Hans Prinzhorn, it author, expected. Their work made other artists see the world anew, influencing the work of Klee, Picasso and Dali among many others. 

This artistic revolution took place as the Nazi party took power in Germany. With a frustrated and failed artist leading the nation, art was seen as nothing less than an emblem of moral health.  In a perverse turn, the Propaganda Minister decided to illustrate what good art was by demonstrating what it was not. A gallery of degenerate art by the mental patients and artists influenced by them was assembled and exhibited drawing, in the end, millions of people. In the meantime, the patients themselves were being put to death for being unproductive and unwanted citizens of Germany.  

This is a powerful story and brings new information about Nazi Germany and a new perspective on the role that art played in it. I received and advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.
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The Nazis loved art. It’s a fact. Some scholars would even argue that the entire Nazi movement was itself an aesthetic, something fleeting, and not at all solid. The leaders of the movement—among whom many were artists themselves—had strong opinions about what made for worthwhile art, an attitude which tragically extended past art to people.

In his book, The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art, journalist Charlie English aims to connect the dots between art, madness, genius, and some of the lesser-known tragedies of the Nazi period. He accomplishes this by following two seemingly disparate threads: art and the rise of the Nazi movement. English then connects the dots through the lives of his subjects. And let’s be very real; The Gallery of Miracles and Madness follows a curious cast of characters. A doctor, and all-around weirdo, Hans Prinzhorn, an eccentric blacksmith turned asylum artist, Franz Karl Bühler, and egomaniacal monster and fan of water-color paintings and small moustaches, Adolf Hitler. 

English’s book begins by diving in to fin-de-siècle Germany and Austria, a place and time that would intrigue Alice and her white rabbit. This is the time period that birthed modern psychology, criminology, as well as the Avant Garde art movement. On the other hand, it is also a time associated with some of modernity’s worse excesses and inhumanity. English manages to wind these themes together by taking a look at a compelling and largely unknown art exhibit put forward by Dr. Prinzhorn. This exhibit was unique because it showcased pieces made by folks like Bühler who were currently patients of Germany’s mental health facilities. The good doctor thought that perhaps by studying work done by people suffering from maladies like schizophrenia and psychosis, we may stand to learn something about those conditions, and how people afflicted saw the world. It is a great idea, and Dr. Prinzhorn should be credited for that, and also for his lovely baritone singing voice, which apparently he had.

This project is complicated when National Socialism rose in Germany, as Hitler’s vision for Germany’s future was very tied up in art. He wanted to create the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art out of German society and her people. This meant to Hitler and his lackeys getting rid of those deemed ‘degenerate’ and unhealthy for the glorious future they envisioned for Germany. The idea that mentally ill folks were degenerate becomes tied to their art, and many are tragically murdered during Hitler’s euthanasia program. 

Their art remains however, and it is quite good. People like the master of nightmares himself, Alfred Kubin came to view the exhibition during its run, and praised Bühler’s work. What the world lost during the Nazi regime continues to be staggering. 

I really appreciated English’s work for many reasons, but most of all, it drew attention to a part of Nazi atrocities that does not often factor into popular discourse. The book was also eminently readable and enjoyable—a fact which is no small feat considering the subject material. English found a way to bring archival sources and the creations of these artists to life, and to therefore finally moved these masters of the craft back into the light. 

My thanks to English, Random House Publishing Group, and Netgalley for giving me an opportunity to read this excellent piece.
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