ArtWeekend

Wölfli’s World: Fifty Shades of Grau — and Technicolor Visions

Adolf Wölfli, “Rückkehr aus Sibirien (Return from Siberia)” (1905), pencil and collaged element on newsprint, 29.13 x 39 inches (all photos courtesy of and © Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland) (click to enlarge)

MARIA GUGGING, AUSTRIA — It’s something of a trek to the Museum Gugging, one part of a legendary arts facility that also features a gallery, bookshop, creativity atelier (where even the word “art” is too limiting) and artists’ residence — a place that has nurtured some of the most renowned talents in the world of art brut. (Among them: Johann Hauser, August Walla, Günther Schützenhöfer and Oswald Tschirtner.) The Gugging complex, situated on the side of a steep hill next to the campus of a science-and-technology school in a small town on the northwestern outskirts of Vienna, is easily accessible by public transportation but, as a cultural attraction, it must compete with the considerable offerings of the capital.

Still, for anyone deeply interested in the always hard-to-name field that includes art brut, outsider art or self-taught artists’ creations (no one label adequately encompasses all of the defining characteristics of this kind of art or its makers), to visit Museum Gugging before March 1 is to make a pilgrimage to what amounts to the Sistine Chapel, the Last Supper or the Rembrandt portfolio — choose your own superlative comparison from the mainstream’s canon — of this unusual genre.

Adolf Wölfli in his room at the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic near Bern, Switzerland, in 1921, with a stack of his handmade, illustrated books (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern)
Adolf Wölfli in his room at the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic near Bern, Switzerland, in 1921, with a stack of his handmade, illustrated books (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern)

That’s because, through that date, this important venue on the international art brut map is presenting adolf wölfli. universum.!, a well-chosen survey of works by one of the definitive masters in this field — and one of the greatest enigmas in a category of artistic production that is routinely marked by unlikely personal stories of remarkable creativity in the face of hardship or unusual circumstances.

Given the scope and richness of Adolf Wölfli’s oeuvre — which consists of forty-five large-format, handmade, text-and-image-filled books; more than a dozen notebooks; several hundred, single-sheet drawings; and a handful of objects, including painted pieces of furniture — to tell the story of this prolific autodidact’s extraordinary artistic journey is challenging, especially when his creative power, mythologized by Wölfli himself, is as much a central theme of his work as any of the recognizable subjects to which it refers.

Organized by Daniel Baumann, the former curator of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in Bern, Switzerland, and Johann Feilacher, the Museum Gugging’s director, adolf wölfli. universum.! commemorates the 150th anniversary of Wölfli’s birth. His life story, along with the singular character of the work he produced, interested the modernist French painter-sculptor Jean Dubuffet, neatly fitting his definition of the kind of deeply personal art, created by unschooled art-makers working primarily for themselves and little affected by — if not completely apart from — the cultural mainstream, which he dubbed “art brut” (“raw art”).

Wölfli was born in 1864 in rural, west-central Switzerland. When he was still very young, his alcoholic father abandoned the family. Wölfli and his impoverished mother were sent to work on different farms, and after his mother died, effectively leaving him an orphan, Adolf grew up in harsh conditions, forced to earn his keep as a farm laborer. In 1890, Wölfli was sentenced to two years in jail for attempted rape. A few years after serving his time, he was imprisoned again following a second rape attempt. In 1895, he was admitted to the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic near Bern, Switzerland’s capital, where eventually he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Adolf Wölfli, “Sommer-Wirtschaft. Zehndermätteli. Bern (Summer-Enterprise. Zehndermätteli. Bern)” (1907), pencil and colored pencil on paper, 39.17 x 39.17 inches (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern) (click to enlarge)

In 1899, as a resident of the Waldau clinic, Wölfli began making drawings, but none of his earliest works have survived. However, fifty drawings from the period 1904-1905 have been preserved; they are Wölfli’s earliest known creations and they are stunning, filled with sophisticated compositions that take command of their pictorial space with the first, inventive elaborations of the distinctive, decorative patterning that would become an integral element of Wölfli’s image-making. Wölfli made these early drawings, with their palettes of varied grays and blacks, using only plain pencil on newsprint. Often, mysteriously, they include blank, six-line musical staves. (By contrast, in Western written music, a staff has five lines.)

In 1907, the psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler (1882-1965) arrived at the Waldau clinic, where he became keenly interested in Wölfli’s art-making. His observations culminated in his writing of a book, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Mental Patient as Artist, now available as Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli, University of Nebraska Press, 1992), a study of the self-taught draftsman’s remarkable evolution as an art-maker. It was first published in 1921. In this book, Morgenthaler unhesitantly recognized that genuine artistic talent and, significantly, vision — referring to an artist’s creative intentions and to the decisions he or she makes in the process of creating works of art — could and did reside in someone like Wölfli, despite his mental illness.

Thanks to pioneering research carried out over many years by Elka Spoerri, the founding curator of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, who died in 2002, and her colleague, the late Jürgen Glaesemer, a curator at the Kunstmuseum Bern, where the foundation and its Wölfli holdings are housed, the structure of the artist’s multi-part magnum opus became known. Their research made clear that Wölfli had developed his art through several distinct phases. Museum Gugging’s exhibition traces this evolution chronologically, with precision and clarity.

Adolf Wölfli, “Beim Gottes Dienst in Steiermark (At the Church Service in Steiermark)” (1917), pencil, colored pencil and collage elements on paper, 27.75/28.35 x 39.49 inches (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern)

In From the Cradle to the Grave, the first, roughly 3000-page section of Wölfli’s oeuvre, which he created from 1908 through 1912, and which fills nine of his big, handmade books, he refashioned his hardscrabble childhood into a glorious travelog. As fictional autobiographies go, it laid the groundwork for the second part of his bigger, broader narrative, the Geographic and Algebraic Books (1912-1916). In this section of approximately 3000 pages, Wölfli describes and anticipates the imminent appearance of his “St. Adolf Giant Creation,” a divine offering that the artist’s alter ego and hero, “St. Adolf,” will bring forth into the universe. (Despite his relative isolation and the spare conditions in which he lived, Wölfli’s art was nothing if not ambitious and unbridled in the scope of its thematic vision.)

From 1917 to 1922, the artist filled six illustrated volumes — some 7000 pages —with his Books with Songs and Dances, in which Wölfli/St. Adolf sings joyously of his generous, all-encompassing creation. These books are filled with compositions that are meant to be sung using solfège (Western music’s familiar do, re, mi… syllabic sequence). In their wall text for this section of the exhibition, the curators note that Wölfli had organized these books so that “consecutively numbered sequences of songs and dances…nest inside one another,” and that, thanks to this “interwoven structure, the different compositions resound simultaneously, creating an all-embracing carpet of song and dance through which Wölfli celebrates the world he has created.”

Adolf Wölfli, “Sein Allergnädigste Gross Gross Majestät, Der Senn Antonio Baritzinn (His Most Gracious Great Great Majesty, the Shepherd Antonio Baritzinn)” (1916), pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 27.75/28.35 x 39.49 inches (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern) (click to enlarge)

This theme of self-congratulatory celebration continues in the next section of Wölfli’s oeuvre, the Album Books with Dances and Marches (1924-1928, totaling some 5000 pages), which are filled with sequences of words and musical compositions. In the final section of his big work, the Funeral March (1928-1930), which boasts more than 8000 pages, filling 16 books, Wölfli used little more than musical-sounding sequences of rhymes based on Swiss-German dialect words to produce a kind of requiem. It succinctly reprises the central themes of his St. Adolf-created world. Here, his colorful pictures are replaced with collaged images from magazines, advertisements and other sources. Their subject matter evokes some of the specific and broader themes Wölfli introduced earlier in his vast narrative.

adolf wölfli. universum.! also features a good selection of the hundreds of single-sheet drawings Wölfli made from 1916 to 1930, apart from his illustrated books. Morgethaler referred to these pictures as “bread art.” They were produced, he wrote, “for other people in exchange for colored pencils, paper, pencils, tobacco, etc.” However, the psychiatrist stated, Wölfli “himself ascribe[d] far greater value” to the handwritten and illustrated volumes that made up “his gigantic autobiography.” On the back of each single-sheet drawing appears a handwritten description of its subject matter and an explanation of its relationship to the bigger story of Wölfli’s “St. Adolf Giant Creation.”

Adolf Wölfli, “Der Amazohn Strom und Amazohn Hall (The Amazon River and Amazon Hall)” (1911), pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 29.33 x 57.68 inches (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern) (click to enlarge)

In the exhibition, the moment around 1907 when Wölfli’s earliest, gray-toned drawings, with their empty musical staves, give way to even more elaborate compositions in full, exuberant color, filled with enigmatic musical notation which, to this day, no one knows exactly how to read, is a spectacular one. Since, after all, St. Adolf had an entire world to create, it comes as no surprise that the selection of drawings on view depicts or alludes to a wide range of subjects, including the Amazon River region, London, Samoa, the city of Bern, the Vatican and more. In the works on view, Wölfli’s intricate compositions take the forms of mandala-like rings filled with musical notation, swirling ribbons of rainbow-tinted color or patterning, and even a gigantic snake, whose coiled body surrounds more passages of written music.

adolf wölfli. universum.! serves as a potent, resonant reminder of just how complex and multifaceted Wölfli’s art is and of how much more in-depth research remains to be done to unlock its mysteries. Even more complex than a modernist work like, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Wölfli’s narrative opus is a Gesamtkunstwerk consisting of visual art, music, poetry, mathematics (whole sections consist of only numbers), geography and, of course, the most imaginative storytelling. Regrettably, no catalog has been published to accompany this historic exhibition, the largest and most significant presentation of Wölfli’s work anywhere in the world since Adolf Wölfli: St. Adolf – Giant – Creation, at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, in 2003.

Adolf Wölfli, “London Süd (South London)” (1911), pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 29.33 x 56.18 inches (© Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Kunstmuseum Bern) (click to enlarge)

It is also notable that adolf wölfli. universum.! will not to travel to other venues and that it did not originate at the Kunstmuseum Bern, which for years has devoted only a small room to a permanent display of just a few of Wölfli’s works. Does the Swiss art-and-culture establishment not take the impressive achievement of this once poor, not extensively educated, former farm boy seriously or appreciate its inestimable value as a unique contribution not only to Switzerland’s but to the world’s cultural patrimony?

A comprehensive survey of Wölfli’s work at a major museum in Switzerland is long overdue. For now, though, Museum Gugging’s excellent presentation will no doubt serve those visitors who are fortunate enough to see it as an enduring reminder of the irrepressible urge so many humans have had, whatever the circumstances of their lives, to create and to tell their stories, real or imagined, both for their own unfathomable purposes and for posterity.

adolf wölfli. universum.! continues at Museum Gugging (Campus 2, 3400 Maria Gugging, Austria) through March 1.

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