the art of ballOOn-painting

by uwe kurz

Hermann Rorschach (1884 - 1922)


Hermann RorschachRorschach was born in Zurich/Switzerland in 1884. His father was a painter and Hermann considered the same career before he made up his mind for psychiatry. While he was a young child he enjoyed an activity called »Klecksography«, the making of pictures by using ink blots, but he was not the first one who did this; among his famous forerunners are Leonardo da Vinci and Justinus Kerner. So much so that he was nicknamed »klecks« (blot) by his friends. It would become his life's work. When finishing high school he was torn between medicine and art. In the end he choose to study medicine in University. This, together with his interest in inkblots, would lead to a fascinating new way of exploring the psyche of people.

    It was an exhilarating time to be studying science. Freud was developing his psychoanalysis and Carl Jung was also coming to the forefront. It was this background that would lead Rorschach to delve further into his own ideas. Together with a friend he began showing inkblots to schoolchildren, noted their reactions and analyzed them. They wanted to see if those gifted at art were more imaginative with their interpretation of the inkblots. Unfortunately for us the results of these tests and the inkblots used were lost. However this was his first significant use of inkblots in an analytical fashion.

    Having received his M.D. in 1912 he worked in Russia before returning to Zurich to work in mental hospitals there. At this time he stepped up his research. He tested 300 patients and 100 'normal' people. In 1921 he published, his now famous, »Psychodiagnostics«. It set out his methods and how he used inkblots to probe the unconscious. This work is nowadays regarded as one of the great classics of psychiatry and psychology, but Hermann Rorschach himself never experienced any success with it.  He had difficulties finding a publisher for it, and it was not well received when it finally came out.

    It consisted of ten cards, each containing inkblots. Five were in colour and the remaining in black and white. The subject is shown each card and asked what they see and the response is recorded. They are then shown the cards a second time and are asked to explain any ambiguous responses and point out what part of the part of the inkblot prompted their reaction. The interview notes all social behaviour, e.g. do they feel challenged or intimidated.


The tests are evaluated using the following criteria:

Psychologists and psychiatrists in Europe and elsewhere soon saw the inkblot test as a useful tool. Using it they could explore the fantasy life of their patient without direct questioning, thus reducing the time for psychoanalysis. Repeated testing could check a patient's progress and the development of children. It also has been used to assess the severity of clients' emotional problems.

    Less than a year after completing his treatise Rorschach developed severe abdominal pains. He had a severely infected appendix but did nothing about it. He finally went to hospital but it was too late. Despite being operated on he died of peritonitis. He was only thirty-seven years old.



Ellenberger, H.:
The Life and Work of Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922). Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 18 (1954), 172-219. Reprinted many times; e.g. in Beyond the Unconscious. Essays of Henri F. Ellenberger in the history of psychiatry (ed. M. Micale, Princeton UP 1993), 192-236.

Rorschach, H.:
Psychodiagnostik (Bircher, Bern 1921; later editions are Huber, Bern, including the English translation, Psychodiagnostics).

translated by Uwe Kurz


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