As a young man, Franz Karl Bühler was recognized as one of the most talented metalworkers in Germany. His reputation grew when he won an international competition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,1 but he also developed a reputation for being intense and difficult. After being fired from a teaching position for being unreliable, Bühler began experiencing severe paranoia. Believing that pursuers were closing in on him, he jumped into a freezing canal in the city of Hamburg. Pulled from the water, Bühler was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Emmendingen, Germany.2 He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he spent most of the next 42 years living at the Emmendingen hospital. While his symptoms became more pronounced over time, Bühler remained a deeply creative artist and continued to develop his skills.
Bühler’s art ranged from sketches of everyday life to self-portraits and more abstract works. He created the featured self-portrait in September 1918. This piece—along with several other examples of Bühler’s art—appeared in a 1922 book by Hans Prinzhorn called Artistry of the Mentally Ill.3 Prinzhorn was a German doctor and art historian who had assembled a large collection of art created by psychiatric patients.4 He praised Bühler’s work, comparing its intensity and expressiveness to the art of Vincent van Gogh. Prinzhorn’s book was influential and popular among avant-garde artists,5 but conservative critics attacked modern art and its appreciation for the work of psychiatric patients like Bühler. By the mid-1920s, rightwing movements like the Nazi Party were already pushing the idea that modern art was the “obviously crazy” work of “insane and degenerate men." Nazi theories of eugenics claimed that people diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities were threats to the overall health of the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft").
In summer 1937, Nazi authorities organized the first Great German Art Exhibition in Munich to define Nazi-approved German art and culture. To present a contrast to the Great German Art Exhibition and show the public what the regime considered to be “cultural decay,” Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels decided to stage a “Degenerate Art” exhibition nearby. Nazi officials confiscated thousands of works of art from German museums for the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. They also confiscated over a hundred works from Prinzhorn’s collection—including several of Bühler’s pieces—for a traveling version of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition that visited other major German cities after the Munich exhibition closed. These artworks were included alongside famous artists’ works in an attempt to show modern art’s supposed “relationship to the art of the mentally ill."7
With the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi regime’s policies targeting people with disabilities and “hereditary illnesses” became more radical and deadly.8 Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Adolf Hitler authorized a widespread program of mass murder of people with disabilities known as the T4 program.9 In the first phase of this program, Nazi officials created six major killing centers located in medical institutions throughout the Reich. The first of these went into operation in January 1940 at Grafeneck in southwestern Germany.
Around noon on March 5, 1940, several vehicles arrived at the Emmendingen hospital from Grafeneck. Bühler and dozens of other psychiatric patients were loaded onto two buses by SS men and Nazi nurses.10 They were then driven to Grafeneck, where they were murdered by carbon monoxide gas.11