Adolf Wölfli (1864 – 1930) was a self-proclaimed Swiss artist, composer, writer, farm-laborer, soldier. He was orphaned at the age of 10 after being both physically and sexually abused. He was sentenced after attempting to commit a pedophilic act. Eventually, he was hospitalized in the Waldau Mental Asylum near Bern, Germany, where he spent nearly half his life.
The Asylum was the place where he developed his passion for creating art, composing music and writing stories. Adolf Wölfli combined all of these by writing books which he illustrated and wrote soundtracks to. He created art and wrote stories until he died of intestinal cancer in 1930.
This type of art is known as brut art, or raw art. This is a term used to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. Some artists, like Jean Debuffet, focused particularly on the art by insane-asylum inmates when regarding this particular style.
What is Brut Art
Interest in this brut art grew mainly in the 1920s and Adolf Wölfli became known for it after his psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Morgenthale, mentioned it in his book. Andre Breton, a surrealist was also very impressed with Wölfli’s art. He referred to the entire body of his work as being “one of the three or four most important works of the twentieth century”.
One of his best-known works is 45 volume illustrated book in which he narrates an imaginary story of his life. This 25,000 page story contains 1,600 illustrations and 1,500 collages. Wölfli also had many smaller books where he would tell stories of his imaginary travels and inventions.
There are paintings in the exhibition of his interpretations of places in the world, like the Gulf of Mexico. He also lists all of the things that he supposedly invented. Adolf Wölfli also produced bread-art or single-sheet drawings which were painted with the purpose to sell them. He began painting them in 1916 and continued until he died in 1930.
Adolf Wölfli’s Art Style
A majority all of his pictures have one thing in common. They are full of color and the pages are filled up completely. He uses everything from lines, shapes, lists of numbers, words, sentences and musical notes. In some cases he even includes cut outs from newspapers. His pieces are mostly drawn in color pencil.
They are chaotic and intense, and there are so many details that one could observe the pictures for hours and still not see everything that’s there. His music, which is played in the background of the exhibition, is also very stirring and creates a feeling of unease and builds tension in the listener.
The pictures in the exhibition will easily grab one’s attention. The uniqueness of the art and story behind it will truly make this an exceptional experience.
You can see some of Adolf’s works in the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in the Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland. This is where can find regular exhibitions in various art galleries all over Europe.
The Museum of Fine Arts Bern is definitely a place that you shouldn’t miss out on. It has over 3,000 paintings and sculptures and 48,000 drawings, lithographs, photographs, videos and films. The art in the museum varies greatly. It includes both international art from all over the world as well as old Swiss art – with a multitude of genres including the unique Brut art of Adolf Wölfli.
This was originally published for IWAP’s The Bridge. You can find more pieces that I wrote for this magazine here.