The Autobiography of St. Adolf II by N. F. Karlins
"St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli," Feb. 25-May 18, 2003, at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
A must-see retrospective of the work of Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) is at the American Folk Art Museum. It is the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to this famous self-taught artist.
Adolf Wölfli, one of the great draftsmen of the 20th century, was born in a small town in Switzerland and began drawing while a patient in the Waldau Mental Asylum (now the Psychiatric University Clinic) in Bern, around 1899. He had been institutionalized in 1895 during a period of national unrest and widespread poverty that had destroyed his family. Although he was considered bright in school, he worked as an itinerant farmhand and handyman. Having been thwarted in his wish to marry the daughter of a farmer who employed him, he was committed to Waldau for making three sexual advances to little girls.
Wölfli mourned the loss of his sweetheart in many of his 25,000-page writings, even as he devised a new identity for himself as St. Adolf II. He also invented a fantasy life that included travels eventually encompassing the entire universe. His beloved is thought to reappear symbolically in many of the 1,620 graphite- and colored-pencil drawings and 1,640 collages that illustrate his texts.
Wölfli's narrative work expressed a desire for female companionship as well as sex, money, travel, power and the other comforts denied to him by his life situation. In his writings, his alter-ego, St. Adolf II, experiences a series of falls and other disasters but eventually is saved by his friends. Birth and rebirth mingle in an environment vastly richer than anything that existed inside or outside the walls of Waldau.
Wölfli's wildly inventive compositions use light and dark patterning to pull and push the eyes of the viewer. Geometric designs, people, animals, landscapes, buildings, faces, bells, letters, numbers, musical notations and text morph into one another in his complex, delicately shaded drawings. Birds, his totem creatures, appear everywhere. Yet Wölfli's autobiographical texts, illustrations, and collages form a vast, coherent whole.
Much of Wölfli's early work is now lost, and of the 50 or so pieces that remain, all date from 1904 or later, about five years after he began drawing. Wölfli was less agitated if he could made artworks, and he was being one pencil a week. Dr. Walter Morgenthaler, a young psychologist who arrived at Waldau in 1907, discovered Wölfli's early pencil drawings and soon acknowledged him as the artist Wölfli already knew himself to be.
By 1908, Wölfli had begun the illustrated narrative he worked on until his death 22 years later. The new attention to his work by someone other than the usual hospital staff, along with more abundant art materials and the protection of his work, set off a burst of creativity in the already-developing artist. In this regard, Wölfli's situation was similar to that of the institutionalized Martin Ramirez, whose work flourished when he was encouraged.
Wölfli's early works are accomplished drawings containing most of the motifs that he used throughout the remainder of his life. Two characteristics bear special mention: Wölfli's frequent insertion of bars of music (on six rather than five staves but inspiring to many composers today, nonetheless), and the use of old-German script, which adds a calligraphic element to his drawings.
In addition to his narratives, which Wlfli rightly considered his main life's work, his production is divided into two categories -- the rare early works (pre-1908) and the so-called "bread art." After Wölfli became the subject of a monograph by Morgenthaler in 1921, he had a clientele waiting for his drawings. These single-sheet drawings, not part of his autobiographical narrative, Wölfli called "bread art." He made them specifically to sell in order to ensure a steady supply of colored pencils and tobacco.
Wölfli's "bread art" pieces have been shown more than any of his other work. In the 1972 exhibition Documenta 5, the international art world was stunned by the originality of these drawings, which are less complex in composition and slightly more colorful on average than his narrative illustrations.
While larger exhibitions have been devoted to Wölfli's work, none has been as comprehensive as the American Folk Art Museum's current show, because it encompasses his early pieces, a large selection of narrative texts with and without illustrations and collage, as well as the better-known "bread art."
Famous among a knowledgeable few in his own lifetime, Wölfli's drawings were essentially forgotten after his death. French artist Jean Dubuffet rediscovered and championed them, as did the poet and critic André Breton. Jean Tinguely, Jonathan Borofsky, Arnulf Rainer and Annette Messager are just a few of the artists who say Wölfli influenced their work.
Physically isolated but alert to the outside world through his ravenous reading of magazines, Wölfli wanted his work to be appreciated by a larger public. He even gave written instructions for the publication of his texts and for an art exhibition. It is a pity he is not alive to see this remarkable show at the American Folk Art Museum.
Elka Spoerri, an art historian who was curator of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern from 1975 to 1996, was co-curator of the current exhibition, but did not live to see it either. She was known as the most important Wölfli scholar, and the exhibition is dedicated to her memory. Her work is being continued by the current curator of the foundation and co-curator of the exhibition, Daniel Baumann. The catalogue contains Spoerri's excellent overview of Wölfli's work, along with several other illuminating essays. Published by the American Folk Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, it is available in hardback for $29.95.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.