Adolf Wölfli

The current exhibition of Adolph Wölfli’s (1864–1930) drawings, book illustrations, collages and musical scores is provocative in several respects. His visual art all concerns either his own personal life or the fictitious exploits of the child Doufi and St. Adolph II, both autobiographical characters Wölfli created in his 19,500-page epic saga, From the Cradle to the Grave. Or, through work and sweat, suffering and ordeals, even through prayer into damnation.

Pictured themes include landscapes, shipwrecks, fires, storms, crucifixions, death plunges, rape, incest and tables of names and numbers recounting the profits of his imaginary estates to the year 2000. Many of the compositions seem veritably to burst with density, and there is the sense of pouring out the contents of the brain, even though much of this is clearly conditioned by structured plan.

At least three general phases of visual work are identifiable. The early graphite drawings often resemble North American Indian designs with images symmetrically split, rotated, and repeated. Images of snakes, shoes, clocks, goblets, bells and scenes with various characters are contained in walled modules or cells which resemble eyeballs, those walls many layers thick, each layer highly ornamented in a sort of visual replica of mental isolation, the images and scenes sectioned off into private cubicles of space.

“Middle period” colored book illustrations show an amazing variety of relationships in color, scale, texture, density, and often recall late medieval manuscripts whose order rose flowerlike from the bottom and fanned out, bursting into rays of color toward the top. Lines or handwriting may “blow” like sound waves and sever the parts of a face with jarring color schemes heightening the effect of discombobulation. Or images contained in pearlike cells may all seem to waltz rhythmically around, structure furthering the musical subject.

In Wölfli’s best late collages, graphite images of masked St. Adolph heads look out around glued-on magazine pictures of Christmas card-like snow scenes and regal-rococo court births—a perpetuation of self regardless of what outside-world occurrence might intervene.

Wölfli, a committed child molester who spent the last 35 years of his life in the Waldau asylum in Berne, Switzerland, in many respects bears out the currently unfashionable myths society has long held about artists. His work has invited a variety of nonart-oriented scholarship: the anthropology-borrowed objective analysis of design elements, as Elka Spoerri’s “Inventory of Basic Forms and Picture Types,” as well as psychiatric studies closer to the pioneering work by Wölfli’s first psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler, 1921, which attempted to relate diagnosis of illness and artistic language—pioneering because until then mental disease had typically been considered destructive to creativity. And yet Wölfli’s work can indeed be treated art critically.

For example, equally as many of the drawings are confusing conglomerations unconditioned by plan or structure—as in Chimpnags-Apes of the Union Canada: America—where patches of music, portraits, animals, and other images seem haphazardly applied with little discernible relation of shape to meaning. Then too, much of Wölfli’s late work consists of veritable enlargements of some of the images used in his earlier illustrations. These are pretty pictures—but that’s all—and often resemble designs on playing cards or placemats. In other illustrations, he tended to mitigate structural disarray by using “receding” and “projecting” color, but the impact often is still confused.

The Museum of Contemporary Art has placed this work in the center of popular panel discussions on “Art of the Insane.” Fascination with the so-called freedom of the lunatic artist and with our ability to communicate with his so-called condition of primitive creativity have taken precedence over much esthetic understanding of the work. Unanswered questions abound: why no translations of the words in the pictures? Most of the drawings were pulled from handsewn, numbered, bound books of Wölfli’s autobiographical epic. Thus, it would be appropriate to read the writing for the contained events or the contained word-sounds, rather than merely to see it as formal embellishment to the images. Does anything in the writing tell us why so many of the clocks are set at 1:30?

Then too, Wölfli apparently considered himself a composer and referred to much of his earlier output as “pieces of music.” Were his arrow-ended notes on 6-line curvilinear staffs intended as mere decoration or as music to be played? Much of the music is transcribable in the key of G Major—why no concerts? Would the musical rhythms parallel the curious repetitive structures in his visual imagery?

One reason all the talk of art of the insane sounds oddly anachronistic is that Wölfli’s sort of strangenesses—repetitive images, flat space, variable perspective, mixing of disciplines, diaristic subjects, automatism—are now a very acceptable part of much contemporary “sane” art. Given our history of Dada and Surrealism uniting dream and waking states and imitating those formal elements which psychiatrists still attribute to art of the insane, divisions between “real artist” or “normal artist” and “insane artist” lead to great confusion.

An understandable nostalgia does pervade all this work because the context of its production—almost like deceased preliterate tribes now irredeemably injected with Westernization—no longer exists. I am told that in a mental institution today, Adolph Wölfli’s best work would be seen as an example of “perseveration”—detrimental repetition of attitudes and thought—and that he would be fast set to work on some more practical handicrafts and taking antidepressants to remove him from his world and place him in ours.

C. L. Morrison