Adolf Wolfli, Outside Artist
April 30, 2003 8:40 AM   Subscribe

A Profile of Adolf Wolfli : "Adolf Wolfli, a Swiss madman, born in 1864, who spent the last thirty-five of his sixty-six years in a psychiatric hospital, is among the greatest of outsider artists. Indeed, he could serve as Exhibit A in a study of the outsider phenomenon: cases of wild, solipsistic genius that challenge the values of formal training and cultural initiation, not to mention sanity, in significant art. ... [His]large, incredibly dense drawings combine religion, sex, language, music, geography, economics, and other aspects of the artist’s fantasy empire, which, for him, was more or less the universe. ... Especially in his earliest surviving pictures -- from 1904 to 1907, after the staff at the Waldau Mental Asylum stopped regarding his work as 'stupid stuff' -- he emerges as, among other things, a master of graphic design with an exceptional talent for tonality."

You can see reproductions of sixteen of his works here. I looked around for more examples of his work online, but found little beyond this diminutive Artcyclopedia entry. (Thanks to Robot Wisdom for the first two links.)
posted by eyebeam (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Interesting artist. Google has many links for him with better reproductions of his work.
posted by monkeyman at 8:52 AM on April 30, 2003

I did a Google search but I wasn't real crazy about any of the results, which was why I made the comment in the post. But maybe I should have linked the Google search, as you did, and allowed people decide for themselves.
posted by eyebeam at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2003

You can see reproductions of sixteen of his works here.

Nice stuff, but what's with the Easter Egg-y next page links? For anyone who doesn't want to spend the time going into the source, swipe the Italian text from left to right, and continue swiping until you have also selected a little (invisible) box further over to the right. Then click on that to get to the next image. I don't know if the concept is to make it all more "outsider-y," but I think it's just mildly annoying.

Don't have much more to say about him at present, as I'm planning to read the New Yorker story in dead-tree format (it arrived yesterday) rather than online. Am I a heretic?
posted by soyjoy at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2003

Outsider art like Wolfli's trumps virtually the entire avant garde of the 20th century. Wolfli is the real thing. For decades, rational artists have attempted to transgress the quotidian and achieve freshness by drawing and painting like lunatics. Only recently, however, have we had the guts to admit that real lunatics do it so much better. Now that transgressive, obsessive, perverse, weirdly drawn art is back to being the province of the insane, rational artists are free to pursue other agendas. Go to it, boys and girls!
posted by Faze at 9:24 AM on April 30, 2003

Thanks, eyebeam, for the introduction - this is great! It looks like Herr Wolfli has a fan site, with lots of info about his music, and a whole lot of links on the second page. Some more images here.
posted by taz at 9:24 AM on April 30, 2003

Conversely, maybe we could have anyone who is a "master of graphic design" locked in an asylum?
posted by gimonca at 9:24 AM on April 30, 2003

Thanks eyebeam
posted by lee at 9:34 AM on April 30, 2003

Wonderful stuff, thanks, eyebeam. I'd love to see some larger scans - there's a lot of detail in his work and it's really hard to see. I'd especially like to be able to read the words in the pieces.

How about here, gimonca? Think how surreal (not to mention meta) it would be to lock tortured artists in a cell made with art that tortures.
posted by iconomy at 9:41 AM on April 30, 2003

I really like this. There's something about the work that seems more "real" than much of the other things I've seen with the label of art on them. Maybe it's because it seems more accessible, or it seems more real because you know the circumstances behind them, to an extent? Not sure.
posted by angry modem at 9:50 AM on April 30, 2003

Great link, thanks eyebeam. I wasn't even aware that there was a term for this sort of thing - "outsider art". I'll be looking for more.

soyjoy - not sure what you're talking about, there are arrows for the next page links for me in Mozilla...or maybe I'm the only one who can see them...maybe I'm the next great outsider...
posted by biscotti at 10:19 AM on April 30, 2003

great, my swisslander friend already has more than enough material to be constantly claiming that the swiss invented/are better at just about every thing.

now you tell me that they have the best madmen too?!

on the other hand, the name Wölfli just proves my rule on how to speak schwiezertieutsch:
(a) learn how to speak german
(2) make every word 'das', put an umlaut over every vowel, and add '-li' to the end of every word.
posted by dorian at 10:53 AM on April 30, 2003

biscotti - yep, they're there now. For some reason that image didn't load before, even though I went through multiple pages. Must've just been a server hiccup or something, not an attempt to make it outsider-y.
posted by soyjoy at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2003

I don't think it's surprising that truly seminal works come from those whose perceptions of reality differ from the norm. True creativity must come from the unknown. The re-working, re-molding, or manipulation of the known might be "witty", but it is never brilliant.

Above and besides insanity, it could also be noted that artists of all stripes can only address the unknown before they have active sexual lives, which weakens them; and never after they have children. Sex and children just take too much energy. Think about it: the truly novel seems only to come to those who are full of energy. The rest of their career is relegated to "mainstream."

Gee, sex or creativity. A choice?
posted by kablam at 11:37 AM on April 30, 2003

I wasn't even aware that there was a term for this sort of thing - "outsider art".

posted by y2karl at 12:47 PM on April 30, 2003

my hurt feelings aside, this is a darn cool post. I love this stuff.
posted by y2karl at 12:49 PM on April 30, 2003

Sorry, y2karl, my memory is beyond terrible (my husband wears a nametag). Thanks for linking your thread, will peruse it now.

soyjoy...thanks for ruining my theory about me being the next great outsider.

The right-hand figure in this picture is really creepy, I love it, I'd love to have it on my wall. I would rename it "Beethoven's Fifth: Resurrection" though.
posted by biscotti at 1:16 PM on April 30, 2003

another super link . thank eyebeam.

there are couple contemporary "outsider" artists that i think deserve links in this thread:

james patterson
evil pupil
and just for fun
panther house
posted by specialk420 at 1:28 PM on April 30, 2003

it could also be noted that artists of all stripes can only address the unknown before they have active sexual lives, which weakens them...
Kablam, that is a deeply weird comment. An "outsider" comment. Extremely unfashionable. Possibly insane. But probably true.
posted by Faze at 1:51 PM on April 30, 2003

Yeah, where'd you come up with this one, and who do you have in mind that supports it?
posted by furiousthought at 2:52 PM on April 30, 2003

I have seen some of his work in person, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which is devoted exclusively to "outsider art". It is amazing. The level of detail is obsessive and absurd and can really mess with your head, even if you can't read any of it.
posted by donkeymon at 3:30 PM on April 30, 2003

Faze and furiousthought: it's not an original idea with me, but Carlos Castaneda, of all people. Where he got it, of course, no one knows. However, the important thing is whether it can be justified or disproven by dispassionate observation.

I like to think of musical artists who in their youth are filled with wild, bizarre, avant guard and probably unpopular ideas. They only have a small following and their music is edgy. But then, bang, either their career is shot or they just grind out re-worked versions of what they did early on. Their music is no longer "threatening." They are mainstream.

Or conversely, think of the Hollywood starlet of the week. She has to commit 100% to staying on top, and any love life at all and the cameras turn away, after a brief "happy ending" pause. She is no longer "unique", she is "overexposed." The longest careers have domineering mothers and agents who keep the boys away.

And I know this idea is very intimidating. Society itself tries to force kids as young as possible to be sexual, to empty themselves, to be less threatening and edgy.
posted by kablam at 5:32 PM on April 30, 2003

Kablam: I'm with Faze that is weird. Touches on Tantricism. I might be more skeptical than Faze though. I'm reading Michael Howe's Genius Explained and he seems to think that "genius" has more dedication, and hard work than anything else. This is a more general statement than your own, which I like because it suggests that a compromise is possible.

But there does seem to be a lot of related superstition about sex and other things you might be doing. Think of sports players engaging in temporary celebacy before a big game. In psychology there's the notion of sublimation, of channeling one's sexual energy to a nonsexual activity. There's the aforementioned idea of tantra, thwarting orgasm for the sake of a spiritual vision. There's the same basic idea in the Catholic church too. Conversely, there's the idea that going without "getting laid" for a long while makes one unbalanced and crazy—vicious cycle there. Even Paul said, "It is better to marry, than to burn" which I always thought was an interesting choice of words.
posted by wobh at 7:16 PM on April 30, 2003

it could also be noted that artists of all stripes can only address the unknown before they have active sexual lives, which weakens them...

Vladimir Nabokov?
posted by y2karl at 7:58 PM on April 30, 2003

However, the important thing is whether it can be justified or disproven by dispassionate observation.

Right, which is why I wanted to know if you had anybody specific in mind as an example of a kickass celibate artist.

Your more general examples of musicians and actresses stick to artistic careers where, in this day and age especially, people "peak" at a young age due to a number of factors, not all of which relate strongly to creativity. (As in, actress X is no longer as hot, or rapper Y is out of touch with the youth.) What about arts whose practitioners tend to come into their own later in life, like novelists or painters?

It's an interesting issue to bring up, which is why I don't want to let it pass without getting nice and particular about it.


Conversely, there's the idea that going without "getting laid" for a long while makes one unbalanced and crazy—vicious cycle there.

While I tend to think that "genius" does have more to do with dedication - really specific kinds of dedication - than anything else, the going crazy can really feed it I believe. But I think an artist can be driven by forces other than celibacy. Otherwise it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.
posted by furiousthought at 8:12 PM on April 30, 2003

But there's the rub: whether it's some "loss of energetic edge", or just losing the creative focus of your time, effort and energy, the end result is the same. Sex and reproduction take a *lot* of energy. And, I'll note, it comes full circle with the comment '...going without "getting laid" for a long while makes one unbalanced and crazy...', the *lack* of sex seemingly *causing* imbalance or insanity (or just giving an inherent imbalance "legs", as it were).

The overall results, in both cases, is the same.

As an aside, I've long been fascinated with the cultural obsession to *instill* sexuality in children. The barrage of sexual propaganda that would twist about anyone. For example, even though statistically only a few high schoolers have anything resembling a steady sexual relationship, virtually every student thinks that *most* other students have ongoing healthy relationships, and that *they themselves* are abnormal. The angst and agony this causes *children* who really aren't ready for such relationships is obscene and foul. And pervasive.
posted by kablam at 9:22 PM on April 30, 2003

A handful of counter-examples, people who made significant and lasting creative work, while getting their freak on as often as possible:

Charles Mingus, jazz bassist and composer
Werner Herzog, actor
Henry Miller, novelist
Pablo Picasso, visual artist
Jimi Hendrix, guitarist and songwriter

That's just off the top of my head -- I'll leave further examples as an exercise for the Gentle Reader.

Personally, I think artistic and sexual impulses are both drives of creativity and expression, and are complementary rather than opposed.
posted by eyebeam at 10:15 PM on April 30, 2003

kablam, that's hilarious - immediately after you first brought that up, I was going to say "This sounds suspiciously like Don Juan." I recall that when I was reading through those books I was all, "Path of the Warrior, yeah! I'm gonna do that!" until I got to that part and said, feh, screw it, I want to have a family. See ya later, Nagualigator.

I dunno about all that stealing-your-energy stuff on the cosmic level, but yeah, having children seriously crimps one's ability to be single-minded about an artistic pursuit, as well as to get more mundane things done. But let's not conflate having children with having sex. It is possible to do one without the other. And as many have noted, the correspondence between great art and lotsa sex seems to lean more on the other side of the argument. Just to pull this back into the main topic, the FPP article notes that Wolfli had already had plenty of sex (not healthy, perhaps, but sex all the same) by the time he became an artist - in fact he was committed to the asylum for sex crimes.
posted by soyjoy at 7:49 AM on May 1, 2003

soyjoy: the "Don Juan" link is swiss-cheesed with errors, but covers some of the basics. However, the entire "CC is dead" had to be one of the most incredulous parts of his life. I even saved his obit because it was so unbelievable.
He's dead. Liver cancer. No body, immediately cremated at undisclosed location. Death certificate signed by a "South American physician visiting the US", who left shortly thereafter. No "outsider" witnesses. Estate to be handled by Cleargreen. End of story.


BTW, I got to meet some of his associates. Scared the piss out of me. Lots of weird, unexplainable stuff going on, too. I'll reserve judgement.
posted by kablam at 11:32 AM on May 1, 2003

Sorry for the link choice - I just wanted to have something to direct people to who might otherwise think I was talking about that other Don Juan (since the topic was sex and attachment) and grabbed the first thing I found.

The way CC's death was handled (er, sorry, his "death") did seem rather odd, but he was an odd guy. I fear that your implication that he's not really dead may fall into the realm of "this is Andy Kaufman's biggest practical joke ever" - a celeb-specific way of translating the primal "No - this can't be true!!!" impulse. Still, I haven't met any of his pals, so you may be in a better position to judge the facts.
posted by soyjoy at 12:13 PM on May 1, 2003

Over the Christmas break, I went to an exhibition of outsider art at the Dowse Museum in Wellington -- Jim Dornan's 'Get Well Research'. The paintings -- on calico cloth -- were apparently intended by the artist to convey the experience of mental illness and institutionalization to psychiatrists. After the artist died in the early '80s, the paintings were abandoned for a time, before being 'rescued' by an acquaintance.

A version of the story, and a few reproductions, are here.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:15 PM on May 1, 2003

« Older Bush v. Bush   |   Indian Hijra Festival Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments