ART REVIEW : Adolf Wolfli: His Art Emerged From Madness


In 1864, Adolf Wolfli was born in a small village outside of Bern, Switzerland. Orphaned at the age of 9, he was put to work as a laborer, and his unhappy childhood was followed by a failed career as a mason and a stint in the army. Socially isolated and withdrawn, Wolfli was sentenced to two years in prison at the age of 26 for the attempted molestation of two young girls. When he was 31, he was committed for life to Waldau, a mental institution near Bern, for molesting a 3-year-old girl. At Waldau he was diagnosed schizophrenic; four years after his arrival at the asylum, Wolfli’s tragic story took a magical twist.

He began to pour out the tormented workings of his memory and imagination onto paper. Drawing and writing obsessively, this untrained novice who’d had no known exposure to art hammered out a visual vocabulary of such originality and power that his body of work stands as one of the cornerstones of Outsider Art (the popular designation for art created by persons who, either by choice or fate, are isolated from society).

In 1921, psychologist Walter Morgenthaler published a landmark monograph on Wolfli titled “A Mentally Ill Person as Artist,” which presented the idea--revolutionary at the time--that the images Wolfli produced were not the ravings of a lunatic but were, in fact, art. That the rest of the world is coming to share Morgenthaler’s views can be seen in the fact that “The Other Side of the Moon: The World of Adolf Wolfli” has taken up residence at the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara through Nov. 5.


On loan from the Kunstmuseum in Bern where the Wolfli archives are permanently housed, the 85 works that make up the show--a fraction of his output--do a marvelous job of conveying the breadth of Wolfli’s achievement. Working up until his death in 1930, Wolfli completed 25,000 pieces and went through several distinct periods; first-rate examples from each are included.

The first thing one notices about Wolfli’s work is how suffocatingly dense it is. Walking a tightrope between picturing and manic patterning, Wolfli constructed labyrinthine mazes with no point of entry or exit. Pulsating with organic life, his patterning--which employs everything from clock hands and buildings to snails and birds--is evocative of musculature one minute, an illuminated manuscript the next.

Executed in plain and colored pencil on newsprint that was bound into books, Wolfli’s largely autobiographical art was essentially an attempt to mythologize himself. Interspersing real facts from his life with fantastic tales of adventure that constituted the life he longed for, Wolfli chronicled scientific explorations and pleasure trips, personal disasters and redemption, tales of war and reconciliation.

Encrusted with musical notation and beautifully scripted German text, his drawings also feature maps of cities from around the world, an occult numbering system, ideas for social and political reform, and investment strategies with interest calculations. Wolfli had a highly pronounced sense of order, and his detailed renderings of elaborately developed systems are widely interpreted as his defense against his chaotically schizophrenic interior life. Simultaneously perceiving himself as a persecuted child, an intellectual giant and a god, Wolfli had several different signatures for his work, including “Cast-Off Accident,” “St. Adolf-Great-Great-God,” and “Grim Casualty”; three or more of his identities often appear on the same drawing.

Empty space terrified Wolfli and he rarely used perspective or attempted to depict three-dimensional forms in space, because such forms imply a surrounding emptiness. Ascending balloons, a favorite recurring motif, represent Wolfli’s yearning for heaven, but alas, Wolfli had no faith that his sins would be forgiven and his balloons always plummet to earth. Unsociable and plagued by hallucinatory voices that were often violent, Wolfli gave further evidence of his conflicted inner life in his depiction of himself; the eyes of the male figure who appears in most of the drawings are dark, hooded and filled with fear.

One of the many astonishing things about Wolfli’s work is the fact that while all of his work bears his unmistakable stamp, no two works are remotely alike. The tonal range he got out of a simple lead pencil is astonishing, as is his feverishly inventive imagination. He had no musical training, yet he composed reams of music over the course of his life, and productions using Wolfli’s richly cadenced text as librettos have been staged in Europe and the United States. Though he had no more than rudimentary training in math, numbers fascinated him and “Wolfli the Allgebrahtor,” as he dubbed himself, devised impossibly complex formulas and equations.


In 1915, Wolfli began constructing collages that combined his drawings with images cut from popular periodicals, and his unerring sense of composition really shines in these remarkably modern-looking works. However, the fact that he was using material not of his own design doesn’t mean that he was emerging from his interior world; rather, Wolfli viewed the cutouts as little more than flat shapes that he recruited toward the completion of his life’s work, which was to construct a universe so packed with static forms that there was no room left for chance or desire.