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Schöneberg Mental Hospital (1863-1914)

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Erich Heckel, Mann am Tisch sitzend, 1914, Radierung, Brücke-Museum, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

“How much human misery was harboured in these shady trees, these clean, white walls, these ornately grilled windows! Stretching between the green trees in the garden, the long white building with green shutters and verandas made a harmless, almost cheerful impression. But this impression changed as soon as we entered the hallway. Visitors were greeted by an air that was heavily laden with smells of all kinds.”

The writer Otto Elster on the Schöneberg Mental Hospital, n.d. [between 1870 and 1914]

Like many artists at the beginning of the twentieth century, Erich Heckel was fascinated by people on the fringes of society, including psychiatric patients. Shortly before the First World War, a today unknown friend allowed him access to the mental hospital in Schöneberg, where the artist captured institutional life in sketches.

From a modern perspective, Heckel’s clinic visits are an inappropriate invasion of the patients’ privacy, and the labelling of these people, in the titles of his images should be critically questioned.* But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the discourse surrounding mentally ill people and their treatment was different: committals to these hospitals were often made by the police rather than medical professionals, which promoted the perception of patients as “criminals”. Their effective disenfranchisement upon entering the institution reinforced their exclusion from the public sphere.

In the private mental hospital in Schöneberg, patients were divided into “good and bad” patients – in accordance with the social classes of the imperial era – and treated separately: wealthy citizens on the one hand and poor, unemployed and homeless people on the other. Unlike in public establishments, where physical coercion and disciplinary measures were part of everyday life, the aim here, at least for the private patients in the prestigious main building, was recovery through social interaction and employment. However, for the increasing number of destitute urban inpatients crammed into the precarious extensions in the rear courtyard, more repressive treatments would still have been common.

„Misery showed itself most brutally in the infirmary where the municipality had housed its destitute patients. The furnishings of the dormitories and refectories were of an extremely primitive nature. The building, the courtyard, the cells were no different from those in a prison, except for some gymnastic apparatuses in the courtyard.”

The writer Otto Elster on the Schöneberg Mental Hospital, n.d. [between 1870 and 1914]

In the years leading up to the First World War, riots and unrest in Schöneberg led to increasing demands for the hospital to be relocated outside the city. It was not until the institution was converted into a reserve military hospital in 1914 that its reputation in the pro-war district was restored. The hospital was nevertheless forced to close at the end of the war for economic reasons. Despite the changing urban landscape, the building has survived to this day.

Valentina Bay

* In these historical work titles, inhuman and derogatory terms are used. The Brücke-Museum avoids repeating these terms in current texts. We have nevertheless written them out in the work titles, as these are titles given by the artist.

Maison de Santé, Hauptstraße 14, before 1909, Museen Tempelhof Schöneberg/Archive, Inv. Hau 196a I Sig. T-Ss211

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