Adolf Wölfli, born in Bowil (Switzerland) in 1894, had a rough childhood : his father, a stone sculptor who drank away all of his paycheques, abandoned his family in 1872. Adolf and his mother were sent to farms as labourers, but she died shortly thereafter. From then on, the young boy wandered from family to family, sometimes being treated harshly and abused sexually yet still managing to continue his studies. Disappointments in love affected him greatly and affected his development. In 1890, he went to prison after two attempted rapes; five years later, a third one provoked his internment at the psychiatric ward of Waldau near Berne, where he died in 1930 of stomach cancer.
At some point after his admission Wölfli began to draw. Starting in 1899, Wölfli delved into the the warped depths of his psyche and was able to articulate a universe as personal as it was complex, narrating the epic of St. Adolf II. 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’. In it, he reinvented his past and projected a utopic future in which St. Adolf II colonizes the universe up to the furthest reaches of space, an inordinate universe that obliged Wölfli to augment the numerical system by multiple units, the highest of which was called anger. To celebrate this advent, drawings, writings, collages and musical staves were put in dialogue in a proliferation of 25,000 kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and colour with over 1,600 illustrations.
His images incorporated a musical notation system of his own making. This notation seemed to start as a purely decorative affair but later developed into real composition which Wölfli would play on a paper trumpet.
Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist 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.
During his lifetime, many artists and collectors were interested in his work : Wölfli thus agreed to sell them his “Brodkunst,” which he made specifically for the occasion. Rediscovered and placed back in the spotlight by the French painter and sculptor, Jean Dubuffet in 1945, Wölflis is one of the first artists to be associated with the Art Brut or outsider art movement. His work challenges us to defy our current thinking on multiple new levels. The link between art and madness being one of them.