Eyes wide open, a woman runs through a hail of bombs, crying out in pain, her naked body burning. In this war scene captured on paper with ballpoint pen, Cologne artist Andreas Maus gave shape to the suffering of the German civilian population during World War II.
The works won Maus this year’s euward art prize, one of the most important international awards for paintingand graphic artsart for persons with intellectual disabilities. The prize is awarded every three years by the Munich-based Augustinum Foundation.
Maus’ works and those of two other euward winners were on display in summer 2021 at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, one of Germany’s most prestigious museums. Klaus Mecherlein, a German art educator, established the art prize for painting and graphics over 20 years ago.
“We wanted more visibility for the art of people with cognitive disabilities,” Mecherlein told DW, adding that goal has been achieved with the euward award.
‘Art from the soul’
The art educator heads the euward archive and the Augustinum studio in Munich, where artists with cognitive disabilities work.
What distinguishes the art of people with and without impairments?
“Art experts would see the difference right away,” Mecherlein says, adding that artists with intellectual disabilities don’t focus so much on the impact of their work when drawing or painting.
Theirs is an art that “comes entirely from the soul, an art of great directness,” Mecherlein says. Andreas Maus is a good example. Born in 1964, the Cologne artist focuses on pressing contemporary issues like exclusion, violence, persecution, war and killing.
Interest in artistic “directness” is on the rise. In Berlin, ART Cru gallery director Alexandra von Gersdorff-Bultmann shows so-called outsider art by people with mental illnesses or disabilities.
“I want these artists to never lose faith in themselves and to make use of their potential,” the gallery owner said in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.
For three years, the exhibition “Art Defies Disability” toured across Germany
In Germany, Alexandra von Gersdorff-Bultmann is regarded as a pioneer in the field of outsider art. However, interest in the creativity of people with disabilities goes back more than 100 years. In the 1910s, the German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933) analyzed the creative works of mentally ill people, his large collection is on display at the University of Heidelberg.
Prinzhorn avoided the word “art,” he spoke of pictorial works. After World War II, Jean Dubufett (1901-1985), a French artist, developed a concept of anti-intellectual art inspired by children, the naïve and the mentally ill, which he called “art brut” (raw art). The British art scholar Roger Cardinal (1940-2019) eventually coined the term outsider art.
Creating conditions for artistic work
Art brut, art cru, outsider art — the terms don’t mean much to Melanie Schmitt, an art historian and therapist who runs Kunsthaus Kaethe:K near Cologne. For the past year, 11 people who need cognitive support have been living and working in the Kunsthaus studios.
“We want to raise the creative potential of these people and create the conditions for their artistic work,” said Schmitt.
Firat Tagal’s Kunsthaus studio is piled high with large-format acrylic paintings of architecture and pop culture. Elias von Martial, who like Tagal is in his mid-20s, specializes in drawings that revolve around myths, combat and fantasy.
“When I draw there could be an earthquake outside, and I might not notice,” he said. The young man would like to study at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, a goal Schmitt believes he can achieve.
Andreas Pilz knows of many such artists who are serious about their art.
“Promoting these people is a never-ending task,” Pilz told DW. The art expert was in charge of an exhibition of works by people with and without disabilities, which toured Germany for three years and ended in 2017.
“It’s about the art, not the disability,” he said.