Adolf Wolfli Austrian, 1864-1930


Adolf Wölfli spent much of his life in the Waldau Clinic, outside of Bern, Switzerland. Before being institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was a farmworker and handyman. Wölfli’s early life was marked with physical and sexual abuse; his alcoholic father left the family when Wölfli was still a boy, and he attended school only intermittently until age nine. Shortly after, he became a Verdingbub—an indentured child laborer. Verdingkinder were children in Switzerland who were taken from their parents, generally owing to poverty, and sent to live with new families—often farmers in need of cheap labor. Wölfli’s mother died when he was just ten years old, leaving him at the mercy of state-run foster homes. When he was old enough, he joined the army for a short time. Later he was convicted of attempted child molestation and served time in prison. After being released, he was again arrested for a related offense and eventually admitted to the Waldau Clinic, where he spent the rest of his life.

As a psychiatric patient, Wölfli exhibited violent impulses and had hallucinations that were appeased only through art making. His earliest surviving works, a series of fifty graphite drawings, are dated between 1904 and 1906. He produced a vast oeuvre of condensed and meticulous compositions that wove together abstracted human figures, religious iconography, animals, architecture, symbols, text, intricate patterning, and musical notation—which he played on a rolled-cardboard “trumpet.” Wölfli’s works are a classic example of horror vacui: he was compelled to fill or contain every bit of a pictorial plane and often turned negative spaces between picture elements into bird outlines. In 1908 Wölfli began a narrative work that, at forty-five volumes of twenty-five hundred pages and sixteen hundred illustrations, would be his chef d’oeuvre. An epic narrative, this fusion of fact and fiction was Wölfli’s means to orchestrate his rebirth as the more powerful and free alter ego “St. Adolf II.”

From 1907 to 1919 a young resident psychiatrist, Walter Morgenthaler, worked intermittently and in various capacities at Waldau. Morgenthaler took interest in Wölfli’s art, provided him with materials and encouragement, and in 1921 published a book about him, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Mental Patient as Artist, published in English in 1992 as Madness & Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli). This landmark publication was the first to present a study of a mental patient as an artist. In time, Wölfli became recognized as a foundational figure in art brut, a nomenclature he predated. A year after the publication of Morgenthaler’s book, Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist with art history training, published Das Bildernei des Geisteskrankers (The Artistry of the Mentally Ill), a study about the art made by his patients in a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital. More than twenty years later, Prinzhorn’s book inspired the French artist Jean Dubuffet to coin the term art brut—meaning art that was crude, raw, uninfluenced, and not ego driven. Dubuffet believed that art brut was the antidote to the corruptive power of mainstream culture in art.

After Wölfli died at Waldau in 1930, the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was created for the preservation of his oeuvre, and the foundation’s collection is now exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern. Wölfli’s works are in the collections of the Charlotte Zander Museum (Bönnigheim, Germany), the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France), the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland), the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).