Agnes Richter (1844–1918) was a German-born seamstress. In 1893, Richter was admitted to a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital on the behalf of her father and brothers following several acute delusional episodes. Richter’s legacy has survived primarily because of its entanglement with a small, personal jacket that she sewed during her lengthy institutionalization. Pieced together from brown wool and course institutional linen, the jacket is covered in messily embroider deutsche schrift, a script which has largely fallen out of use. The lines of red, yellow, blue, orange, and white threaded text are difficult to read, overlapping and obscured through continual use. Fragments of text from Richters Jacket have been deciphered though their significance and meaning remains unclear (e.g., I am not big, I wish to read, I plunge headlong into disaster). Her case number, 583m appears repeatedly, suggesting that the jacket may represent an biographical object.
Life in German asylums at the fin-de-siecle was highly regimented. While male patients worked in the grounds or in workshops to manufacture shoes, furniture, female patients were expected to clean, sew, knit, and launder institutional uniforms and textiles. Embracing these technologies in a manner, Richter assembled both a and a in the jacket. It bears the marks of its use, including sweat stains and a darted back that may have to accommodate a physical deformity hunch back.
gnes 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.
The Jacket was collected by Hans Prinzhornn in the early 20th century. Since its rediscovery amidst the collections in 1980, the jacket has become an iconic piece in the Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg. Similar examples of asylum artistry from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries include Myrellen’s Coat.[5