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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Adolf Wölfli

Outsider art, Adolf Wolfli.
I suppose it would be a very high accolade to say that the work of a particular artist was like nothing ever seen before...or since. Such a body of work one might safely assume to have come from some kind of creative genius. However, even in the realm of creative geniuses, even the likes of Leonardo, van Gogh, Monet, Jackson Pollock and virtually any other such household name, there were influences, both upon the artist and as a result of the artist's lifetime work. Even Pablo Picasso, as creative as he was, as brilliant as he was, very often painted in the manner of his predecessors and came to be copied expressively and excessively over his lifetime and since his death. Be that as it may, the only artist I can think of at the moment who fits the opening tribute above, was the Swiss painter Adolf Wolfli. Yet, however, creative Wolfli may have been, believe me, the man was no genius. In fact he was psychotic by any diagnosis and measure of the word. All of which simply points to the fact that there has always been an extremely fine line between genius and psychosis. Vincent van Gogh could be the poster child for such creativity. Far beyond van Gogh, however, Adolf Wolfli would have to be considered a textbook case.
Adolf Wolfli, 1920s
Born in Bern, Switzerland, around 1866, Adolf had a treacherous childhood. He was abused both physically and sexually, orphaned at the age of ten, thus to spend his teen years in a series of state-run foster homes. Once he came of age, Wolfli was forced to work as an indentured servant before joining the Swiss army for a short time. While serving in the army, Wolfli was convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time only to be re-arrested for a similar offense once he was freed. At that point, in 1895, he was admitted to the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern, where he spent the rest of his life. He was quite mentally unstable and sometimes violent on admission, leading to his being kept in isolation much of his early time in the hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.

Virtually all of Wolfli's work is in pencil or colored pencil, often rendered on newsprint.
Dubuffet Self-portrait, 1966
At some point after having been institutionalized, Wolfli began to draw. His first surviving works consist of a series of 50 pencil drawings dating from between 1904 and 1906. Dr. Walter Morgen-thaler at the clinic, took a particular interest in Wolli's art and his condition, later publishing Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) in 1921, which first brought Wolfli to the attention of the art world. Morgenthaler's book revealed the works of a man who had no previous interest in art and who developed his talents and skills independently after being com-mitted for a debilitating condition. Wolfli could therefore be considered an iconoclast. His work influenced the development and acceptance of outsider art, sometimes called Art Brut, and its champion, the French painter, Jean Dubuffet (right). However, having said that, the works of Wolfli and Dubuffet, while similar in spirit, are miles apart in appear-ance.

Adolf Wolfli--a visual language only he understood.
Though seemingly abstract, Wolfli's
work was not without representational
Wolfli produced an incredible number of works during his lifetime, while working with only the barest of materials. He often traded smaller works with visitors to the clinic to obtain pencils, paper, and other essentials. Morgenthaler closely observed Wolfli's methods, reporting that every Monday morning Wolfli was given a new pencil and two large sheets of blank newsprint. The pencil was used up in two days, at which time Wolfli had to make do with the stubs he had saved or with whatever he could beg off someone else. He would often write with pieces only about a quarter-inch long, even using broken-off pencil tips, which he held between his fingernails. He carefully col-lected packing paper and any other paper he could get from the guards and patients in his area. Otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas each year, the clinic gave him a box of colored pencils, which seldom lasted more than two or three weeks.

Adolf Wolfli the musical composer.
Wolfli the musician.
Wolfli's images were complex, intricate and intense. He worked to the very edges of the page creating highly detailed borders. Every empty space was filled. His images sometimes incorporated idio-syncratic musical notations (above). These seemed to start as a purely decorative effort but later de-veloped into real composition which Wolfli at-tempted to play on a paper trumpet (left). In 1908, he set about creating a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, contain-ing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illus-trations. This work was a mix of elements of his life blended with fantasy epics of his adventures in which he transformed himself from a child to "Knight Adolf" to "Emperor Adolf" and finally to "St. Adolf II." Text and illustrations formed the narrative combin-ing multiple elements on kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and color. After Wolfli died in 1930 his works were taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Bern. Later the Adolf Wolfli Foundation was formed to preserve his art for future generations. Its collection is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, his work truly like nothing ever seen before or since.

Adolf Wolfli, etching the thin line
between genius and madness.



  1. Believe me, the man was an artistic genius. What a silly thing to dispute in this overall subpar post you've made.

  2. George--
    As I said in the first paragraph of the post, "...there has always been an extremely fine line between genius and psychosis." It's difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. Was Wolfli a genius because he was psychotic or psychotic because he was a genius--perhaps neither. An artists first duty is to communicate. When an artist makes no attempt to do so, or does so in a manner that is totally ineffective, then his work ceases to be art and devolves into gibberish. I chose to give Adolf Wolfli the benefit of the doubt in considering his work to be art, but his severe psychosis precludes me labeling him a "genius" no matter what definition is used or how far you wish to stretch the word.

    Thanks for reading and writing, I appreciate your comment.