Research project

Karl M. (1886–1942), Reisender, Wirt/traveling salesman/innkeeper: «Die Frau springt der Gans nach», Bleistift auf Papier / (The Woman Jumps after the Goose), pencil on paper, 19,6 x 26,5 cm, 1917, Sammlung Königsfelden, Inv. Nr. 201, PDAG, Windisch

The aim of the research project was to obtain an overview of the artworks created in psychiatric institutions in Switzerland during the period 1850 to 1930. In 18 of the 25 cantonal institutions, artworks were found in patients’ files, while some institutions had also created a small museum in which to display patients’ work. The works catalogued by the project were photographed and then returned to the files. The image database is held in the ZHdK archive. Lists of the holdings of all the collections, including thumbnail images, can be found in pdf format on this website.

During the research project, we had access to the historic archives of 20 psychiatric hospitals and found artworks in 18 of them. Of a total of 71’410 patients’ files, we examined 19’270: approximately one in five. The number of artworks found at individual institutions ranged from a dozen to over a hundred. The artworks in the estate of Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922) comprise a further, nineteenth, collection, with 121 drawings from the institutions at Münsterlingen and Herisau (Archiv und Sammlung Hermann Rorschach, Medizinhistorisches Institut der Universität Bern). Since the project ended in 2016, many clinics have handed over their historic archives to the state archives of their respective cantons (Breitenau/Canton Schaffhausen; Königsfelden/Canton Aargau (transfer planned for 2019); Préfargier, Perreux/both Canton Neuchâtel; Wil/Canton St. Gallen).

Acting on their own initiative, the psychiatrists Hans Steck (1891–1980, Lausanne), Charles Ladame (1871–1949, Geneva), Walter Morgenthaler (1882–1965, Bern) and Arthur Kielholz (1879–1962, Aargau) each set up small museums to show patients’ art at their institutions. Even at these institutions, however, further drawings and paintings were found in patients’ files. In these cases, we were able to consult such files.

Artworks in patient files
At the clinics of Breitenau (Schaffhausen) and Liestal (Basel-Landschaft) we examined every file.
At the clinic in Wil (St. Gallen) every file was examined before the archive was transferred to the state archive in 2018. Approximately a further 100 drawings came to light in a follow-up search by the clinic.
The files from the Münsterlingen clinic, held in the state archive, were also examined in full.
The complete work of Gertrud Schwyzer (including those in her medical files), comprising some 4100 sheets and notebooks, has been kept at the cantonal library at Trogen, Canton Appenzell/Ausserrhoden, since 2017 and can be accessed online.
At two institutions, St. Urban in Canton Lucerne and Perreux in Canton Neuchâtel, the historical archives had been ‘purged’ of all personal documents; at Oberwil, Canton Zug, we were informed that there is no longer a historical archive; at Rosegg, Canton Solothurn, it appeared that the files we were looking for were no longer available; the same was true at Bellelay, Canton Bern. We were not granted access to the archives of the University Psychiatric Clinic at Friedmatt, Basel or the Clinica Psichiatrica Cantonale in Mendrisio.

Image database
The image database can be viewed in the ZHdK Archive. This requires the signature of a special-use order. The database comprises 5277 works by patients from 18 Swiss psychiatric clinics from the years 1855 to 1940.