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Adolf Wolfli

 (1864 - 1930)
Adolf Wolfli was active/lived in Switzerland, Germany.  Adolf Wolfli is known for outsider art, art brut, pencil drawing.

Adolf Wolfli

Biography from the Archives of askART

Adolf Wölfli (occasionally spelled Adolf Woelfli or Adolf Wolfli) was a Swiss artist who was one of the first artists to be associated with the Art Brut or outsider art label.

Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland. He was abused both physically and sexually as a child, and was orphaned at the age of 10. He thereafter grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a Verdingbub (indentured child labourer) and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time.

After being freed, he was re-arrested for a similar offense and in 1895 was admitted to the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern where he spent the rest of his adult life. He was very disturbed and sometimes violent on admission, leading to him being kept in isolation for his early time at hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.

At some point after his admission Wölfli began to draw. His first surviving works (a series of 50 pencil drawings) are dated from between 1904 and 1906.

Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the Waldau Clinic, took a particular interest in Wölfli's art and his condition, later publishing Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) in 1921 which first brought Wölfli to the attention of the art world.

Morgenthaler's book detailed the works of a patient who seemed to have no previous interest in art and developed his talents and skills independently after being committed for a debilitating condition. In this respect, Wölfli was an iconoclast and influenced the development and acceptance of outsider art, Art Brut and its champion Jean Dubuffet.

Wölfli produced a huge number of works during his life, often working with the barest of materials and trading smaller works with visitors to the clinic to obtain pencils, paper or other essentials. Morgenthaler closely observed Wölfli's methods, writing in his influential book:

"Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most."

The images Wölfli produced were complex, intricate and intense. They worked to the very edges of the page with detailed borders. In a manifestation of Wölfli's "horror vacui", every empty space was filled with two small holes. Wölfli called the shapes around these holes his "birds."

His images also incorporated an idiosyncratic musical notation. This notation seemed to start as a purely decorative affair but later developed into real composition which Wölfli would play on a paper trumpet.

In 1908, he set about creating a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, containing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations. This work was a mix of elements of his own life blended with fantastical stories of his adventures from 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, sometimes combining multiple elements on kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and colour.

After Wölfli died at Waldau in 1930 his works were taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Bern. Later the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was formed to preserve his art for future generations. Its collection is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern.

"Adolf Wolfli," Wikipedia, Jan. 2017

Biography from Christie's New York, Rockefeller Center
Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), known for his colorful intricate drawings filled with imagined autobiographical details, is one of the foundational figures of Art Brut.  The artist began to draw shortly after his 1895 admission to the Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, and Dr. Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist at the clinic, took interest in his output. 

In 1921, Morgenthaler published the now-seminal text Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), a full-length study of Wölfli’s life and art.  Years later, in a 1965 exhibition catalog for the eleventh Exposition International du Surréalisme, famous surrealist Andre Breton wrote that Wölfli’s “vivid creations…as an ensemble represent one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century” (Elka Spoerri and Daniel Baumann, The Art of Adolf Wölfli (New York, 2003), p. 33).

In 2015, Wölfli’s drawings featured prominently in the critically acclaimed exhibition Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet at the American Folk Art Museum, in New York.  Nearly a century after its initial publication and notice, the artist’s work continues to command attention, reiterating Wölfli’s place as a star of Outsider Art and Art Brut.

Wölfli's magnum opus, a multi-volume, 25,000-page epic illustrated text, chronicled his imagined life as a knight, an emperor and a saint.  In addition to these bound books, the artist rendered single-sheet drawings he called portraits.  Whether in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper, his works are dense, colored-filled images supported by text and, at times, musical compositions.  At times he signed Adolf II, a reference to the artist’s self-fashioned identity of “St. Adolf II,” a persona that appears in his texts around 1916.

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About  Adolf Wolfli

Born:  1864 - Bern, Switzerland
Died:   1930 - Bern, Switzerland
Known for:  outsider art, art brut, pencil drawing