Inventing the Self

Agnes’s Jacket

October 23rd, 2013 by Jason Tougaw · No Comments

The title of Gail Hornstein’s book refers to a jacket that belonged to Agnes Richter, who was an inmate of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution near Dresden, Germany. It was probably some time in the 1990s when she embroidered the jacket in a script that has beguiled art historians and language experts, who haven’t been able to decipher what seems to be some kind of narrative logic in the embroidered words.

Agnes Richter's jacket. The Prinzhorn Collection, University of Heidelberg.

Agnes Richter’s jacket. The Prinzhorn Collection, University of Heidelberg.

Hornstein describes the jacket as a condundrum that symbolizes the difficult of understanding the first-person experience of people diagnosed with mental illness–which is, of course, the project of her book:

Agnes Richter’s jacket has only rarely been displayed to the public, but its mysterious text has long fascinated art historians. The language appears to resemble Deutsche Schrift, a nineteenth-century cursive script now unintelligible even to highly literate German speakers. However, even experts in this and other arcane scripts find it difficult to make out the letters, many of which are jagged or broken. In addition, much of Agnes’s text is on the inside of the jacket, and these parts, having been worn against the skin, are now faint or unraveling. The significance of the many other colors–blue, red, orange, yellow–remains unknown. Nor is it at all clear where to locate the beginning, middle, or end of the narrative, or to decide the direction in which it should be read: Neck to waist? In circular fashion around the sleeves? Inside first, then outside? (ix)

Later in her introduction, Hornstein asks “What  if the mad are trying to tell us something?What if their ‘ravings’ contain important information? Just because they’re difficult to deciper doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them out” (xiii). Of course, if the embroidery is a transcription of Richter’s suffering–or of voices she heard–it’s likely that it her “narrative” has beginning, middle, or end. Nonetheless, Hornstein claims, “everyone who sees the jacket thinks sense can be made of it” (x).

People can see the jacket because Hans Prinzhorn (1866 – 1933), a German psychiatrist and art historian, collected art created by inmates of various asylums in German, Switzerland, and Austria. The Prinzhorn Collection houses and displays his collection.



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