Erich Spießbach, Anything is Possible, But the Stupidest's Most Likely
1952 • Pencil, coloured pencil, ink pen on paper • 29.5 × 20.7 cm • Inv. 8542 / 358 (2015)
© Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital, Heidelberg
An outstanding example of humour in psychiatry is the collection of several hundred drawings by Erich Spießbach (1901–1956), almost all of which were created between 1951 and 1952. Spießbach worked from 1920 to 1923 in Gotha as a draftsman in the wagon factory and then as an archeological preparator at the local history museum. In 1928, he was employed as a labourer at the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Münster. In 1936, he got into conflict with the director, and Spießbach subsequently instituted a large number of court cases against him until he was admitted to the provincial mental hospital in Münster in 1943 with the diagnosis of “querulant madness” (“Querulantenwahnsinn”).
Because of war damage to the hospital, the inmates were transferred to Marsberg in 1944. It was here that Spießbach contracted tuberculosis in 1950 and was placed in an isolation cell. The assistant doctor, Manfred in der Beeck (1920–2004), who had discovered the patient's talent for drawing, gave him paper, pencils, pen and ink. Impressed by Spießbach's motto: “Even stupidity is a gift from God that cannot be misused with impunity,” he asked him one day to illustrate the maxim from a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung: “Everything is possible, but the stupidest thing is the most likely”. This commission resulted in a picture showing examples of stupidity from the original sin up to the common musical notation. This triggered a flood of drawings in which Spießbach made fun of the stupidity of others. His often aggressive mockery is aimed at the university city of Münster, for which he designed a monument to stupidity, as well as at the doctors, especially the director of psychiatry. Significantly, however, his most vicious mockery was aimed at an allegory of justice.
For the viewer today, it is clear that these drawings were created out of his hope of communicating with the young doctor. Spießbach hoped that they would laugh together at the stupidity of others. Dr in der Beeck, however, did not understand Spießbach's aim, but, instead, he wanted to collect material for a psychiatric examination of artistic creativity. Realizing his mistake, the patient abruptly stopped drawing. In 1956, he had a fatal accident trying to escape from the institution. Ten years later, Dr in der Beeck published a book about Spießbach's drawings, “Wahnsinn, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung” (“Madness, Irony and Deeper Meaning”).
Text by Thomas Roeske
Ein Ausbruch in Kreativität – Erich Spießbach, “der dreifach diplomierte Idiot”, ed. by Thomas Röske, Heidelberg: Wunderhorn, 2021 (Geman and English)
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