Untitled (Letter to Husband), 1909
pencil on paper
6.4 x 4.2 in. (16.3 x 10.6 cm.)
German, 19th-20th centuries.
Born 1878, Ellwangen; died 1928, Wiesloch.
Emma Hauck was no artist. As far as we know she never intended to make art. But among the dozen remaining impassioned letters she wrote in 1909 to her husband from the University Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg are heart-rending visual creations whose aesthetic features strike us as beautiful artistic achievements–even though they are expressions of desperate loneliness and helplessness.
Hauck, married for four years to a schoolteacher and mother of two young daughters, had been taken to the clinic after suffering periods of intense anxiety, delusion, and withdrawal from her family, believing that she was infected by her children, poisoned by her food, and made ill by husband’s kiss. Although she had expressed a desire to live alone, she wrote obsessive letters to her husband pleading to be returned to him. In several of the letters, her repeated expressions of endearment, her call for her husband to rescue her–“Come sweetheart”–and even the single cry, “Come,” are repeated over and over, covering the entire page from edge to edge, then over-written by the same words many times until the letter becomes almost unreadable. Hauck’s words are so tightly compacted and overwritten
that they form dark, vibrating vertical columns on the page leading us to view the letter almost solely as an expressive abstraction and find a purely aesthetic pleasure in it–until we decipher the markings and her private plea becomes hauntingly public and the beauty turns terribly poignant. We can feel her desperate loneliness and helplessness and wonder whether she believed that the repetitive writing itself would effect the result she desired or was the only way for her to retain a sense of an increasingly fractured identity. Confronted with these letters, we are reminded of Hans Prinzhorn’s perception: “Even the simplest scribble . . . is, as a manifestation of expressive gestures, the bearer of psychic components, and the whole sphere of psychic life lies as if in perspective behind the most insignificant form element.”
What is particularly disturbing to the viewer is that the letters were never posted; her husband could not read them, and he never arrived to take her away. They have remained in the Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg long after Hauck’s death eleven years later in an asylum in Wiesloch.
2005, Im Rausch der Kunst. Dubuffet und Art Brut, Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf Sole Collection, Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital
2000, The Prinzhorn Collection: Traces upon the Wunderblock, The Drawing Center, New York, NY
1996, Beyond Reason. Art and Psychosis: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection, Hayward Gallery, London
Peiry, Lucienne, Écriture en délire, Lausanne, Collection de l’Art Brut, 2004.
Brand-Claussen, Bettina and Viola Michely, Irre ist weiblich: Künsterliche Interventionen von Frauen in der Psychiatrie um 1900, Heidelberg, Prinzhorn Collection, 2004.
Jádi, Inge, Leb wohl sagt mein Genie Ordugele muss sein, Heidelberg, Wunderhorn, 1985.
Prinzhorn, Hans, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, trans. Eric von Brockdorff, Vienna/New York, Springer Verlag, 1972.