Summary and book reviews of The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness

Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler's War on Art

by Charlie English

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English X
The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English
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  • Published:
    Aug 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Book Summary

The untold story of Hitler's war on "degenerate" artists and the mentally ill that paved the way for the Holocaust.

As a veteran of the First World War, and an expert in art history and medicine, Hans Prinzhorn was uniquely placed to explore the connection between art and madness. The work he collected—ranging from expressive paintings to life-size rag dolls and fragile sculptures made from chewed bread—contained a raw, emotional power, and the book he published about the material inspired a new generation of modern artists, Max Ernst, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí among them. By the mid-1930s, however, Prinzhorn's collection had begun to attract the attention of a far more sinister group.

Modernism was in full swing when Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1907, hoping to forge a career as a painter. Rejected from art school, this troubled young man became convinced that modern art was degrading the Aryan soul, and once he had risen to power he ordered that modern works be seized and publicly shamed in "degenerate art" exhibitions, which became wildly popular. But this culture war was a mere curtain-raiser for Hitler's next campaign, against allegedly "degenerate" humans, and Prinzhorn's artist-patients were caught up in both. By 1941, the Nazis had murdered 70,000 psychiatric patients in killing centers that would serve as prototypes for the death camps of the Final Solution. Dozens of Prinzhorn artists were among the victims.

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is a spellbinding, emotionally resonant tale of this complex and troubling history that uncovers Hitler's wars on modern art and the mentally ill and how they paved the way for the Holocaust. Charlie English tells an eerie story of genius, madness, and dehumanization that offers readers a fresh perspective on the brutal ideology of the Nazi regime.

1.
The Man Who Jumped in the Canal

On a winter's day in 1898, a stocky young man with a handlebar mustache was hurrying along the banks of a canal in Hamburg, north Germany. Pohl, as the world would come to know him, was in his early thirties then, a dapper individual who liked to carry a cane or umbrella and to wear a stovepipe hat over his oiled, ink-dark hair. At this particular instant, though, such considerations were far from Pohl's mind. He moved along in a private cloud of fear, rushing to escape the mysterious agents who tormented him. He didn't know who these men were—they could pop up in any guise, anywhere, at almost any time—but he did have a pretty good idea who sent them.

It had begun in Strasbourg, a German city at this time, at a moment of great professional humiliation: his sacking from the city's School of Arts and Crafts. The school's director, not content with ruining a brilliant career, had sent spies to snoop on Pohl, to listen at his keyhole, forcing ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

English deftly juxtaposes the intellectual and artistic ferment of 1920s Germany with the turgid drawings and morose outlook of a young, adrift Adolf Hitler, at odds with himself and the world after the country's defeat in World War I. He persuasively argues throughout that Hitler's "mass murder programs and his views on art were intimately connected." This little-known holocaust has been sensitively rendered by English in The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, which balances the Hitlerian horrors with the immortal hope that art can provide, both to the artist and to society...continued

Full Review Members Only (689 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is profoundly heartbreaking, unexpectedly redeeming and immensely important.

The Guardian (UK)
English takes us through uncharted artistic waters in a narrative of great humanity: a gripping journey into art, madness and modern history.

Publishers Weekly
[F]ascinating...English's story feels strikingly relevant. While shedding new light on this piece of history, English also provides a cautionary tale for the future.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[P]owerful and disturbing...an absorbing contribution to the horrific history of Nazi Germany...A revelatory look at the 'gangplank for the Holocaust.'

Library Journal (starred review)
A moving account of art and mental illness in Nazi Germany. English's accessible, inviting writing will draw in readers interested in personal perspectives of the Third Reich as well as aficionados of art history.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender
Dazzling...The Gallery of Miracles and Madness explores a little-known chapter of World War II—the story of psychiatric art and the rise of the Third Reich. This poignant narrative centers on the complicated psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn and the eccentric patient artists whose work helped usher in a new epoch of the modernist avant-garde only to become fodder for Hitler's hateful ideology of 'degeneration.' Richly wrought and deeply researched, it's also a salient reminder to beware of pseudoscience.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Dadaism

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, an upside down urinal with writing scrawled on the lower left sideIn The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, Charlie English connects the psychological effects of World War I to the evolving art scene in the early decades of the 20th century. The war not only killed upwards of 20 million people, but it also had an enormous impact on European culture in the decades after the guns fell silent in 1918. One of the most notable reactions to the war was a controversial artistic movement mocking traditional style and elevating nonsense to an art form. Called "Dada," it was founded by poet Hugo Ball in Zurich, Switzerland. Ball and other avant-garde artists from across Europe converged on the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich to form an absurdist response to the catastrophe of WWI. Springing from their disgust of the ...

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