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Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930)


Adolf Wölfli c. 1920

Adolf Wölfli in his cell next
the stack of his books, 1921

Adolf Wölfli with paper trumpet c.1926
1864 Adolf Wölfli is born on 29 February 1864 in Bowil, Emmental (Canton Berne, Switzerland), the youngest of seven children of Jakob and Anna Wölfli-Feuz. The same year, the family moves to Bern. The father, a stonecutter, is an alcoholic. Wölfli grows up in dire poverty.

about 1870
Wölfli´s father abandons the family. The mother earns their livelihood as a washerwoman.

Together with his ailing mother, Wölfli is resettled by the authorities is his home community Schangnau, in Emmental. The community takes over their financial support. Mother and son are separated and send to work at different farmers for food and lodging.

Death of Wölfli´s mother.

Wölfli lives as a hireling with several farmers in Schangnau under very hard working conditions and social degradation.

He works as a farmhand in various locations in Emmental. A romance is forbidden and broken up for social reasons by the parents of the girl. Wölfli moves to Bern and works there and in the countryside of the Cantons Berne and Neuchâtel as handy-man and haycutter.

He receives infantry recruit training in Lucerne.

Wölfli is arrested for attempted sexual assault on two young girls (fourteen and five) and sentenced to two years in prison.

He is imprisoned in the St.Johannsen prison in Canton Berne.

Wölfli works as laborer in Berne and around in increasing social isolation and hardship.

Wölfli is again arrested for attempting to molest a 31⁄2-year-old girl. In order to examine his mental accountability, he is commited to the Waldau Mental Asylum, near Bern, for evaluation. There he is diagnosed as a schizophrenic. He remains a patient there until his death in 1930.

Wölfli begins to draw spontaneously.

First preserved drawings forming a unified group and marked by high-quality draftmanship and artistic vision (pencil, fifty from presumably two hundred to three hundred drawings). Wölfli signs with "Adolf Wölfli, Composer".

First preserved color drawings.
Walter Morgenthaler arrives as an young psychiatrist resident at Waldau, where he works, with interruptions, in different positions until 1919.

Wölfli begins to work on his narrative oeuvre, which ends with his death in 1930 after 25´000 pages.

Writes „From the Cradle to the Grave; Or; Through Work and Sweat, Suffering and Ordeals, Even through Prayer into Damnation. Manifold Travels, Adventures, Accidental Calamities, Hunting and Other Experiences of a Lost Soul Erring about the Globe; or, A Servant of God without a Head Is More Miserable Than the Most Miserable of Wretches.“ (9 books): Wölfli turns his dramatic and miserable childhood into a magnificent travelog illustrated by manifold color drawings.

Writes „Geographic and Algebraic Books“ (7 books). In a series of testaments to his real nephew Rudolf Wölfli describes how to build the future „Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation“: a huge „capital fortune“ will allow Rudolf to purchase, rename, urbanize, and appropriate the planet and finally the entire cosmos. The textes (over 3´000 pages) are illustrated with number- and music-pictures.

since 1916
Wölfli signs his works „St. Adolf II.“ He begins the systematic production of his so-called Bread-Art, single-sheet drawings designed for sale, which he continues to make until 1930.

Writes „Books with Songs and Dances“ (6 books): Wölfli celebrates his „Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation“ for thousands of additional pages, in sound poetry, songs, musical scales (do, re, mi, fa...), and collages.

Walter Morgenthaler leaves Waldau at the end of the year. Dr. Marie von Ries becomes Wölfli´s new psychiatrist.

Walter Morgenthaler publishes his monograph on Wölfli´s life and work „Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler“ („Madness and Art. The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli“). In connection with the presentation of Morgenthaler's study, works of Wölfli are for the first time publicly exhibited in bookshops in Bern, Basel and Zurich.

Writes eight books, among them four „Album-Books with Dances and Marches“ with musical compositions written in solfège and illustrated with drawings and collages.

Wölfli writes the „Funeral March“, his requiem, which consists of 16 books with 8404 pages (unfinished). Wölfli recapitulates central motifs of his world system in the reduced form of keywords and collages, weaving them into a infinite tapestry of sounds, ryhtms, and pictures.

Adolf Wölfli dies on 6 November of intestinal cancer.

Jean Dubuffet, the French artist and founder of „Art Brut,“ discovered the work of Adolf Wölfli in 1945 and called him „le grand Wölfli.“ The Surrealist André Breton considered Wölfli´s oeuvre „one of the three of four most important works of the twentieth century,“ and the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann showed a number of his pieces in 1972 at „documenta 5,“ the renown contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

In 1972 the Adolf Wöfli Foundation was founded in Berne and since them, its collection is deposited in the Museum of Fine Art Bern. It contains the entire Wölfli estate as well as private gifts: 44 volumes of his writings, 6 notebooks and 250 single sheet drawings. The purpose of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation is to maintain, keep an inventary of Adolf Wölfli´s works, as well as to present his oeuvres to the public through exhibitions and publications.


Présentation chronologique
de la vie et de l’œuvre