A century ago, Jan van Herwijnen (1889-1965) drew 32 life-size portraits of psychiatric patients in the Willem Arntsz Huis in Utrecht (now Altrecht) in nine months. ‘I had to do that – that was a compulsion I could not escape.’ In 1918-1919 he traveled up and down from his hometown of Amsterdam to the residents of this 'bedlam' to accomplish his mission.
Just before that, the artist himself had spent a few days in a clinic with a nervous breakdown. “I had flown apart again,” he said later. With heartfelt respect, in his drawings he gave a human face to the women and men who were hidden from society's view with the label 'insane'. No stereotypes, but individuals marked by life, which he put on paper in a stylized realism with firm contours.
"I worked like a madman – such a drawing had to be made in an hour – after that I was exhausted."
Jan van Herwijnen around 1920 | photo archive jan van herwijnen foundation
These drawings meant a breakthrough in Van Herwijnen's artistic career, in which he also made subjects of the homeless, the blind, the poor and the sick. The portraits still appeal to the imagination. They raise questions about the boundary between so-called 'normal' and 'crazy' and about our (unconscious) prejudices about people with a mental vulnerability and psychiatry in general. And perhaps Jan van Herwijnen drew his 'insane people' not only out of compassion, but also to exorcise his own demons...
When Van Herwijnen's drawings were first exhibited in an Amsterdam art hall in 1920, the reactions of art critics were very positive. 'Uninhibited', 'inspired' and 'an artistic expression of great overwhelming power can arise'. In addition, some wrote in their publications that it was about time to view psychiatric patients differently. Van Herwijnen 'is suing the society that tolerates this misery and is to blame for it'. The time was ripe for greater understanding and a more humane attitude towards the 'mentally ill'.
All drawings are made in black chalk on paper and come from the collection of Museum Arnhem, which has these works on long-term loan from the Jan van Herwijnen Foundation. The 32 portraits can be seen in Museum MORE in Gorssel from September 19, 2021 to January 9, 2022.
An illustrated book will accompany the exhibition. The author is curator Marieke Jooren. With a foreword by Ype Koopmans. Jan van Herwijnen. Drawing Out of Compassion is published at WBooks. ISBN 978 94 625 8448 8. Price €24.95. The book will be for sale in our museum shop and online via WBooks, among others.