Agnes Richter’s embroidered straitjacket

Embroidered straitjacked by asylum patient Agnes Richter, 1890s.

Straitjacket embroidered by asylum patient Agnes Richter in the 1890s. (Image: This Is Not Modern Art tumblr)

Agnes Richter was a German seamstress held as a patient in an insane asylum during the 1890s. During her time there, she densely embroidered her straitjacket with words, undecipherable phrases and drawings which  documented her thoughts and feelings throughout her time there. This remarkable object was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist who ardently collected the artwork of his patients at a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital in the early 20th century.

Photograph of Dr Hans Prinzhorn.

Dr Hans Prinzhorn (Image: Museum Sammlung Prinzhorn via Tate Britain)

In addition to psychiatry, Hans Prinzhorn was also a trained art historian. In 1919 he took a position at the University of Heidelburg where he as responsible for expanding a collection of art made by the mentally ill. In two years, the collection reached over 5,000 works and formed the base of Prinzhorn’s influential book Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill). This book, the first real attempt to analyze the artwork of the mentally ill, was received coolly in the psychiatry world but taken up enthusiastically by artists of the time. Jean Dubuffet in particular was enamored with Prinzhorn’s work, forming part of his interest in the “purity” and “authenticity” of art brut.

Prinzhorn’s collection and the artistic interest in it played a significant role in the modern conception of so-called “outsider art” created outside the traditional bounds of the fine art world. Although Dubuffet was particularly focused on artists with diagnosed mental illnesses, the term came to be broadly associated with many types of “naive” artists uninfluenced by the academy or who operated outside the bounds of official culture. This type of “outsider art” was deeply fascinating to many of the most well-known artists and art movements of the first half of the twentieth-century, corresponding with their general rejection of established artistic values.

Detail of Agnes Richter's embroidered straitjacket.

Agnes Richter’s straitjacket (detail) (Image: The Lulu Bird)

Agnes Richter’s embroidered straitjacket has become a beloved and well-known symbol of the Outsider Art movement. And it is indeed a powerful item, whose cryptic words and delicate embroidery still makes a deep impression on people today. The darkly beautiful jacket intrigues the viewer with haunting snippets of phrases and idea that give us tantalizing but mysterious peeks into her disturbed mind. As Helen McCarthy of A Face Made For Radio eloquently puts it: “She wasn’t trying to decorate or sloganize – the words told the story of her life. She spent her days transforming a mental institution’s uniform – the symbol of her de-personalisation – into a profoundly personal record of her journey.”

I find the move to categorize it as “art” slightly problematic. To me, the term “art”- even that created by people outside the bounds of the traditional art world – implies an act of creative intention to make art. Although the embroidery of her jacket was undoubtedly an act of expression, I’m not convinced that this should be the only qualifying trait of art. To me, Agnes Richter’s straitjacket is more akin to a diary created from a comfortable medium (as she was a seamstress), or perhaps made out of the only materials she had on hand. As an art historian, Hans Prinzhorn’s academic interests framed the jacket as “art” and under his influence it has continued to be perceived in that way. I wonder how differently this artifact would be understood if Prinzhorn had been trained in linguistics and collected it to decode the meanings of Richter’s embroidered text?

Or maybe I’m just so “inside” the art world, I can’t see “outside” art properly.

// For an interesting piece of related reading, check out this article from the BBC on the similarities in brain function between creative thinking and schizophrenia.

Agnes Richter’s straitjacket has also been the subject of a recent volume, Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meaning of Madness by psychologist Gail Hornstein (2009). I haven’t read it, but would be keen to hear what others thought of it.

// Top image from This Is Not Modern Art tumblr; photograph of Dr Hans Prinzhorn via Tate Britain; bottom image via The Lulu Bird.

Elsewhere on The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

George Widener, Friday Disasters

40 thoughts on “Agnes Richter’s embroidered straitjacket

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  4. “I find the move to categorize it as “art” slightly problematic. To me, the term “art”- even that created by people outside the bounds of the traditional art world – implies an act of creative intention to make art.”
    I disagree. “Intention to make art” can be very flat and un-creative. Art includes all things that are made and are thought about in infinitely different ways. Art is the appreciation of that act, and it’s objects and gestures, no matter the presence of a pretence to making “art”, it’s wherever making happens and under whatever circumstances. It includes everyone and all that we make (thinking is making). “Outsider” art has taught us just that. Open up your definition!

    • The definition of art I gave was, of course, oversimplified for the sake of brevity, so I’m afraid my point may have been missed. My point was that Richter’s act of creativity does not need the validation of the word ‘art’ (especially when it is qualified by a troubling word like ‘outsider’) to be appreciated.

      I like your characterization of art as an appreciation of the creative act, but I disagree that *all* thinking and making is art. ‘Art’ is not just the appreciation of a creative act, but a particular *way* of appreciating it. The discourse of art is based in particular (Western, Euro-centric, aesthetic) values and assumptions. Although there is certainly room for these constructs to be challenged, I have a problem with the idea of uncritically imposing that framework onto every act of making willy nilly. Doing so effaces the agency of the creator, who may be operating under a different set of values and intentions, which are equally valid.

      For instance, you could say that my written response to your comment is an artistic act. If I agreed with you (i.e. I intended it to act as an artistic gesture), we would both be equal participants in the construction of an artistic discourse, even if we disagreed about its meaning or significance as an artwork. My definition of art certainly has room for this kind of thinking and making within it. However, if I did not agree that my response was art, then you are forcing my creation to be understood in terms and values that you dictate. We are no longer equal participants, and I have no agency in determining how my own work is received; the ‘appreciator’ is given more power than the original maker.

      Of course, this does happen all the time, under the well-meaning guise of ‘artistic appreciation’ — I just don’t agree with it. I argue that my written response can be just as valid, creative and valuable in its intended form; it doesn’t need to be called ‘art’ to confer its value. This is what I was trying to say about Richter’s embroidered straitjacket.

      On Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 8:37 AM, The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting

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  8. “depends on who is looking at it” – interesting view I wonder what an textile conservator/historian would have to say – looking at how the thing was made.

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  11. Have you ever heard of Arthur Bispo do Rosário? He was a Brazilian psychiatric patient that also became famous for his embroidery! Besides Bispo, there was also a Psychiatric Hospital in Rio that during the 40s had a art studio for the interns. The works of the interns became a exposition in Zurich visited by Carl Jung!

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  21. Hornstein’s book is endlessly fascinating, and I would recommend it. The article is interesting, however, you’ve provided some misinformation about Agnes Richter’s jacket. She didn’t embroider a straitjacket, she took apart her institution-issued uniform and hand-stitched a waistcoat , complete with accommodation for her spinal curvature. She then stitched inside of the jacket her ‘testimony’ of sorts, which has been largely indecipherable. But she wore it after she stitched inside of it, leaving the ‘back’ of the stitches on the outside of the jacket, and leaving many of the stitching worn and broken. Also, it’s in a script not taught to Germans any longer, adding to the difficulty in deciphering it. This information all comes from Gail Hornstein’s book.

  22. Fascinating! But it’s “straitjacket” — “strait” as in “narrow, confining,” as in “Straits of Magellan” or “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way…” Not “straight” as in “uncrooked.” Otherwise, so interesting.

    • Huh, you’re totally right! I didn’t even think to double check my spelling on it…every time I hear that word I think of how the garment keeps your torso upright, hence the ‘straight’. Usually I’m such a spelling fanatic, but this one was really engrained in my head and I’ve never picked up on the difference before. I stand corrected!

      • @Chelsea Although you stand corrected, the article doesn’t! Please correct it so as to not perpetuate the error.

      • Thanks for picking up on this Steve! I actually had updated the text, but it reverted back to my original misspelled version when I updated the site format a few weeks ago.

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