Who is Hermann Rorschach and Why is This Picture Important?

Ink Blot

Hermann Rorschach was a Swiss psychiatrist who lived from 1884 to 1922. In his work life, he served at a hospital where patients who suffered from mental illness were treated. As a child he was drawn to art, and had drawn “Klecks”, a type of picture using inkblots. As an adult he trained in the sciences, entered medicine and became a psychiatrist. While working at a hospital in Herisau, Switzerland treating patients for various types of mental illness, he started using “inkblot” images, such as the picture to the right, to ask his patients what they saw or what they felt when viewing the image. In responding to the images, it is thought that the patient projects part of his or her unconscious experience or inner self in describing what they see or feel in reacting to the image. Rorschach experimented with various images, and eventually settled on a series of 10 ambiguous designs, five black and white, five with color, to be presented to each patient in an exact sequence. In 1921 he published his images and his findings in “Psychodiagnostik”, a book in which he explained how to use the images to diagnose the presence or absence of schizophrenia.

Rorschach died about one year after the book was published. However, following his death the images, and their use in diagnosing mental health took on a remarkable life of its own. In the United States the images were widely used in the field of psychology to screen for schizophrenia and many other mental illnesses. Between 1921 and to this day, the “inkblots” of Rorschach have been in continuous use by the courts, the military, and in medicine to test individuals for personality type, or for mental illness, usually in combination with other diagnostic tools.

In his highly imaginative approach to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, Rorschach added to the store of knowledge in medicine. His 10 images may well be the most studied images in history.  His biography was published in February, 2017 in a book by Daniel Searls called “The Inkblots’. 

As a child who was drawn to the world of art, Rorschach became a scientist who set out to learn from the way we respond to an ambiguous image, our interpretation of it, our feelings in response to it. Taking those interpretations and feelings into account, he was able to learn about what is going on inside us, so the better to diagnose and treat what makes some of us sick.

During a slow wandering afternoon at the museum, when we see the paintings presented there, they engender feelings we have in response to the painting,  and  thoughts that come to us in response to the painting. Even though the paintings at the museum have content (most of them!),  the feelings and thoughts that we have in reacting to that content can tell us something about ourselves. Rorschach’s images are without content, they are ambiguous. The feelings and thoughts we have about these inkblots  – if not in reaction to any content, where do they come from? I think that is the point, the feelings and thoughts we have in response to a truly ambiguous (no content) image must truly come from our inner self, our unconscious. 

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