Thursday, June 29, 2006

Only For you bill, close your eyes and feel alright!

Adolf Wölfli (1864 - 1930) (occasionally spelt Adolf Woelfli or Adolf Wolfli) was a prolific Swiss artist who is regarded as one of the foremost artists in the Art Brut or outsider art traditions.

Wölfli had a troubled childhood. He suffered abuse and molestation and was orphaned at the age of 10, thereafter growing up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a farm labourer and briefly joined the army but was later convicted of attempted child molestation for which he served prison time. Sometime after being freed he was arrested for a similar offence and was admitted in 1895 to the Waldau Clinic in Berne, Switzerland, a psychiatric hospital 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, perhaps due to his psychosis which led to intense hallucinations.

At some point after his admission Wölfli began to draw. Unfortunately his earliest drawings have not survived, so it is difficult to know exactly when he began his artistic explorations, although 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 was revolutionary in many ways as it was not simply a clinical study but argued that a person with a severe mental illness could be a serious artist and had the ability to make important contributions to the development of art.

This may seem a little ironic in hindsight, considering that (as Kay Redfield Jamison has pointed out) many revolutionary artists throughout history have suffered from mental illness or impairment. However, 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.

Wölfli eventually died in 1930 and his works were taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Berne. After his death the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was formed to preserve his art for future generations, today its collection is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Berne.

Wölfli's work has inspired many composers. Perhaps most notable the Danish composer Per Nørgård who after viewing a Wölfli exhibition in 1979 embarked on a schizoid style lasting for several years; among the works of this time are an opera on the life of Wölfli called The Divine Circus.


Blogger Mike Begnal said...

will you post some pictures?

1:51 AM  

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