Adolf Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1872, the youngest of seven brothers. His father, Jacob, was by trade a stonecutter, but he was also an alcoholic and a criminal. He spent much time in jail, and consequently, Wölfli’s mother, Anna, worked as a laundress to support herself and her family. By the time Wölfli was five, his father had completely abandoned the family, and died a few years later.
His mother, having fallen ill, took herself and her youngest son back to the family’s native community in Zaziwil. Because they had no financial assets, Anna and her son were sent to work in exchange for their food and shelter with area farm families, and in the process were separated from each other. The following year, 1873, she died and the orphaned eight-year-old was obligated to continue working as a child hireling. In his various situations, he encountered harshness, mistreatment, and overwork, but did manage to complete his formal education in 1879.
When he was eighteen, he fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Her parents, vehemently opposed to the affair, forbade their daughter to have anything to do with him, on account of his low social status. Heartbroken, Wölfli left Zaziwil and returned to Bern.
In the city, Wölfli found employment as a handyman, but became depressed and lonely. When walking in the woods near the city one day, he tried to entice a fourteen-year-old girl away from her friends, but they intervened and prevented any tragedy that may have occurred. Wölfli avoided charges for his attempt, but an incident with another young girl landed him in prison for two years. In Bern after his release, he found it difficult to find work, but did manage to occupy himself at a variety of jobs including as a gardener and gravedigger. His landlords and others noticed his behavior gradually becoming strange and aggressive. In 1895, after an assault on a very young child, he was sent to Waldau Mental Asylum. Wölfli remained there for thirty-five years, until his death in 1930.
At Waldau, Wölfli was violent and uncontrollable at times, which led to his placement in solitary confinement. In 1899, an incident occurred in which he broke apart his bedside table and used it to break down the door to his cell. Then, he used the shattered wood to break the window in the hall outside. But, he made no move to escape. He was found in the morning by the staff, standing motionless in front of the window.
It was also in this year that he began to draw. He first was given an allotment of one pencil each week, which he completely exhausted. Gradually, he was given more supplies, as it was realized that his temper subsided when occupied with drawing and writing. He worked continuously until his death, producing among other works an autobiography that, when stacked up, measured nearly six feet high.
Volumes have been written about Wölfli and his work. Elka Spoerri is credited with much research that has been done, as she spent years analyzing, deciphering and writing about his art. Within his pictures, Wölfli created an entire universe full of personal significance. Much of his output is autobiographical, accounting for “the circumstances of his earliest childhood, which, he says, he was prevented from remembering for a while because of an illness contracted at the age of eight (the time when he was separated from his mother).” (Cardinal, 1972, p.57).
Hospital records show that he began drawing in 1899, but none of these early works have been preserved. The earliest extant drawings date to 1904 and were done in heavy black pencil. In 1907, color appears in his drawings. The next year, he began to write From the Cradle to the Grave, his illustrated, fantastic autobiography. Often, in image and in word, he placed himself in the picture as Saint Adolf II who adventured through various lands. Other figures in the drawings include an array of familial characters. The tome was finally completed in nine volumes equaling 2,970 pages. Among the drawings are illustrated maps depicting the locations described during his travels.
The intricate world he devised is shown, not only in the images he created, but in extensive writing and musical notations, compositions that he would sometimes play on a trumpet fashioned out of cardboard. He manipulated the alphabet to form new words or sometimes borrowed foreign words, and would change styles of script in passages. All of this formed a sort of secret language which only he understood. Wölfli’s numerical concepts exceed normal parameters to the point where he needed to make up new numbers to define his ideas. His narrations cite things that number beyond a quadrillion, and once surpassing that, take on the names of invented quantities, up to Oberon, which is the number that cannot be surpassed by anything, for fear of utter devastation. Yet, there is one number in his system that is even greater than this, called Zorn (“rage”).
This is but a brief overview of the complexities involved with the art of Adolf Wölfli. As author John MacGregor expresses, “The alternate world created by Wölfli is one of the most elaborate, strange, and yet thoroughly consistent world pictures ever created by a single individual. In terms of its artistic quality it is also one of the most highly organized and powerful, providing a clear and overwhelmingly impressive view of the workings of the mind in extremis.” (MacGregor, p.271).
---. Adolf Wölfli: Draftsman, Writer, Poet, Composer. Ed. Elka Spoerri (Cornell University Press, 1997)
Cardinal, Roger. Outsider Art (London: Studio Vista, 1972)
Cardinal, Roger. “Elka Spoerri [1924-2002], Champion of Adolf Wölfli, Dies” in Folk Art Messenger (Summer/Fall 2002).
MacGregor, John M. “I See a World Within the World: I Dream but Am Awake” in Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art. (Princeton University Press, 1992)
Spoerri, Elke and Daniel Baumann. “St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli” in Folk Art, Winter 2002/2003, 42-52.
Thévoz, Michel. Art Brut. Foreword by Jean Dubuffet. (Geneva: Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1976)
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