Thomas Röske – A Onesided Dialogue? Jörg Ahrnt and Ludwig Wilde

From the Exhibition Catalogue:
„In Persern Büchern steht’s geschrieben“
Kunstverein Göttingen, Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt, Sammlung Prinzhorn Heidelberg, 2004


Thomas Röske

A Onesided Dialogue?
Jörg Ahrnt and Ludwig Wilde

Repeatedly, artists have been astonished by the artworks of the Heidelberg Collection, and have reacted to them. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Oskar Schlemmer already show what is also true for many later artists: they discover what they searched for. They are fascinated by works which seem to deal with a similar artistic problem to the one they are currently working on. This sounds trivial. It is not, considering that the Prinzhorn Collection encompasses a wide variety of works on paper, on canvas, made of wood or in textile, many of which still look alien and mysterious today. One’s discovery, and what he does with it, can open the eyes of many others.

Jörg Ahrnt has found an answer in the Prinzhorn Collection as well – without consciously looking for it. But the fact that he was drawn to Wilde’s drawings (which have been hardly looked at before), and especially by their association with “something Persian”, is no accident. Ahrnt has been engaged with Islamic culture for a long time now. He has already travelled to Iran, and in the autumn of 2003, exhibited his drawings in Teheran and Shiraz for the first time.

At first glance, nothing shows such a focus in the life of Ludwig Wilde (1865 –?), if we follow the reports in his medical file. The wealthy wine merchant from Neustadt/Weinstraße had in 1908 become a patient of the Klingenmünster asylum in Landeck. From 1900 addicted to alcohol, in 1907 he developed paranoia and started to hear voices. When he finally became violent and talked about suicide, his relatives cared for the sending. In the asylum the mood changed. Wilde thought he was Napoleon, but sometimes also the Bavarian King Ludwig II. As early as 1909 he lost all legal status. In the following years, his state did not change. For reasons we do not know, he was transferred in 1925 to Bamberg, where we lose trace of him. He probably stayed in an asylum until his death, like many psychiatric patients at that time.

Wilde’s Landeck medical file was not updated regularly. 1 After 1909 there are no entries for a long time. Only in 1919 did a doctor write a short report covering the previuos ten years. Here we read: “Then he made also drawings which consist of an ongoing space filling line & in which, in his assumption are incorporated all the sciences.” Shortly after this, his designs are mentioned again, as “curves and lines in which as he thinks all sciences and arts are incorporated”. Although Wilde held his drawings in high esteem, probably because they helped him to maintain his dignity and individuality, this is everything anyone found worth to be noting down about them. Nobody mentioned the date that Wilde started to draw, nor the extent of his creativity. His notebook of 26 pages with 41 drawings and several texts (which must be have been produced after 1914 because of allusions to the war in it) and the few single drawings by him which are in Heidelberg came from Landeck probably in 1919 or 1920. They were given in response to a call for a potential “Museum of Pathologic Art”, which the art historian and doctor Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933) sent to psychiatric institutions mainly in the German speaking countries. In his book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” (1922) Prinzhorn includes four drawings by Wilde. 2 But he writes about them only cursorily, as examples for “the decisive step in drawing beyond the most basic”: These four drawings for him differ from “unobjective, unordered scribbles” in that their elements are “arranging themselves on the sheet regularly no matter how primitive their individual forms”. Later he mentions the drawings again, as “bizarrely playful images” and “arabesques” 3 – but he surely does not seriously think of them as being Oriental.

Their closeness to Persian patterns is astonishing though as the juxtapositions in this show prove. Wilde who was educated at the Gymnasium and grew up “under good influences in best education” probably knew Goethe’s “West-eastern Divan”, and also of the political as well as cultural relations between Germany and Persia (cf. the text by Oliver Bast). His knowledge of orientalising literature can be concluded from headlines of texts in the notice book, like “Proverbs of Origin” and “Proverbs of Wisdom”. Even his occasional praise of the wine finds support in such writings. However, Wilde’s drawings are special because they develop an individual form, which is the opposite of the highhanded gestures of Modernism as performed especially in the Expressionism of that time – and which in its detailed ornamentation and meditative mood is contrary even to recent pattern-paintings like those by Christopher Wool or Philipp Taafee. The pencil has been moved patiently over the paper in small meandering movements until the evenly distributed forms filled the surface. Using this method, Wilde produced a number of drawings that differ from each other not only in the density of the repeated discrete forms, but also in their overall shape. Sometimes a prolific amoebic pattern emerges, at other times an emphatic ordering of a variety of large cartouches, or even a complex kind of letter form coalescing from a free distribution of similar organic forms. On top of these ornamental blocks, the artist laid dots or flourishes of lines that are reminiscent of letter forms. Occasionally, he added a grotesque figurative element, with crowned or helmeted faces placed on spherical bases.

Perhaps the Neo Roccoco of the Jugendstil was important for Wilde’s discovery of Persian Art; perhaps the wine merchant sympathised with the detailed patterns mainly because they touched on the internalised virtues of his time, such as humbleness, precision and diligence. Perhaps their parallels to the doodling drawings of WOLS, Henri Michaux as well as of Horst Jansen is not accidental and reveals a similar reaction to drug-induced optical experiences, from alcohol or mescalin (Wilde’s conviction that the secret of the world is revealed in a pattern which says nothing to the everyday consciousness is found in reports of others ex­perienced with psychoactive drugs). What is important is that they do not reflect one of the orient clichés that has nourished art history since the 16th century. Wilde is not interested in sabres, horses and beautiful dark haired women, opium, flowers and strong colour contrasts, but in a playful approach towards the language of Islamic ornament.

In studying these drawings Ahrnt discovered their quality and proved that Wilde had talent and a lot of experience. He shows that these are not works beyond history by a psychiatric patient who turned his back on the world. They are not just eruptions of the unconscious – this myth about the “artistry of the mentally ill” has been prolonged since Prinzhorn (“they know not what they do” 4). Wilde’s drawings are more the astonishing creative results of someone who is situated in a social marginal position through his psychic illness and the resulting internment. This marginalisation leads – although Wilde grew up in the same pictorial culture as his contemporaries – to departures from the norm which nevertheless often elucidate the reality of his time. Part of this is the less artistic but craft-based approach of his drawings. He tries to get closer to the fascination of the foreign with the help of the structure of pattern building. Wilde’s empathic re-creative engagement with the charms of exotic Islamic culture seems to reflect his own ‘exotic’ position in society – it reveals his desire to conform as much as his alienation.

At the same time the constellation of work in this exhibition clarifies the perception of Ahrnt’s new drawings. For some time now, he has been trying to come to terms with Islamic culture, avoiding the well trodden paths of exoticism, which almost inevi­tably lead to ethno-kitsch, especially when just current perspec­tives or clichés in the media are considered. Wilde’s ornamental drawings fascinate Ahrnt because they unexpectedly manage to cast a undisguised view on this foreign world from a historical position outside society. The attempt to understand the creation of these drawings, their cultural as well as their artistic requirements, helped him to a better understanding of his own position.

For some time, Ahnt’s drawing has been conceptually based on small movements of the drawing hand. Forms emerge from additions that are the result of these gestures. This “growing process” creates a moderate, meditative character in the drawings, while the paper ground, the field for a number of similar drawn elements, often becomes an impalpable space. A hovering feeling emerges. In the last few years Ahrnt’s artistic interest has concentrated on the lining up or the interplay of spheres, small illusionis­tic plastic entities. With this quasi minimal figurative elements the draughtsman also consciously locates himself in a cultural overlapping space of associations, since chains of spheres, especially with religious meanings, can be found in both East and West (for example rosaries).

He has freed himself from this illusionism in the recent drawings. The new constellations of drawn elemental traces unfold on a plain. The connection to Wilde’s drawings is obvious. Like him, Ahrnt sometimes uses symmetrical configurations and plays through this with the character of craft ornament. Also similar is a closeness to Persian ornament, without imitation. What is different is his drawing with white on black, the greater simplification of the basic drawing movements and the object-like character of the work, the result of colouring the strong white paper with black ink. One consequence of these characteristics is the illusion that one holds a piece of the cosmos in one’s hand with such a drawing – which also reminds us of traditional Persian works.

The most recent drawings concentrate on designing an oval form out of a great number of little dots and stars ordered around a nearly empty centre. Ahrnt’s experience from his earlier drawings helps him here by giving him an astonishing confidence in the concentration of his compositions. The play with tiny differences in the relationship of the elements and with the inclusion of the black ground results in an amazing variety and complexity, the optical fascination of which is impossible to escape. One moment the form is filled with a pulsating radiation from its centre, the next with a concentric vortex, while in another drawing the fine net structure of the stars and dots seems to be hardened ecstatically. In the intoxicated effect Ahrnt has obtained here, he seems to come closest to Wilde’s drawings.

The changes of the vocabulary of drawing and its associative space also affect Ahrnt’s sculptures, which have like his paintings their own development and themes. Here the artist focusses on the human figure, flying or hovering. The “impossibility” this provokes, especially with works cast from heavy metal, allows the spectator to participate in the world of the drawings with the help of bodily empathy. Star shapes, repeatedly carved into the surfaces of the new, black bronzes take up their vocabulary. Through this ‘dressing’ of pattern, they become astronauts, star travellers in the literal sense.

In cautiously coming closer to the artistic language of Persian culture through his drawings, Ahrnt doesn’t lose sight of his astonishment in the fascinatingly foreign. He wants to understand, but from inside, by engaging with the unfamiliar structure, and not from the outside, by asking for familiar categories. The unusual drawings of an asylum patient from the time of the First World War help him in this project. But Ahrnt’s reaction on Wilde’s drawings helps them to speak as well. Here we can, if we listen carefully, follow an instructive dialogue.

Medical file of Ludwig Wilde, Kreis-Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Klingenmünster, copy in the archive of the Prinzhorn Collection Heidelberg. The following data, partly cited verbatim, is taken from this file, if not marked otherwise.
Three of them are pages out of a notice book which have obviously been taken out for making the reproductions for his book.
Hans Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration (1968), Reprint, Vienna and New York 1995, p. 42 and 44.
Ibid., p. 269