The Work of Adolf Wolfli

The creator of a mind-boggling 25000 pages of impossibly detailed drawings, Adolf Wolfli made the art establishment question the boundaries of artistic merit and acknowledge the importance of creative impulse.  Born in 1864, Wolfli was one of the first artists labelled as ‘Art Brut’ and to be considered an ‘outsider artist’, unfairly separating him from his artistic contemporaries and ostracising him from recognised, established artists.  The product of an abusive childhood, exposed to sexual and physical torment before losing both parents at the age of ten, he led a strange life of service in the army and as a farm labourer before being arrested and spending 6 years in prison for child molestation.  He was arrested for a similar offence some time later and was confined in a Swiss psychiatric Hospital where he spent the rest of his life.  He was found to have experienced psychosis and intense hallucinations and spent a lot of his initial time there in isolation.  Such circumstances have led to his work being fetishised and his traumatic life story being recalled more often than the fascinating and unique content of his work.  Despite this, it has been widely publicised and exhibited.  Drawing became his obsession some time after admission when he began work on ‘From the Cradle to the Grave’ 3000 pages of work describing an alternative childhood in which he is called Doufi and travels around the world and describes his extraordinary adventures.  His exotic travels see him accompanied by fellow explorers and are detailed with lavish illustrations of kings and queens, palaces, maps, talking plants and fantastical creatures.  Wolfi’s alternate reality is spectacularly complex and engaging and was clearly cathartic and transformative for him.  He went on to create ‘Geographic and Algebraic Books’ in which he describes the rebuilding, renaming and urbanisation of earth and then the cosmos, signing every piece of work St Adolf II.  He continues this imagines biography in thousands more pages totalling 5 books and appropriates his thoughts in poetry, songs, musical scales and drawings.  Wolfli created a vast body of work that was a strange record of his time and environment though absolutely alien in his efforts to escape the harsh realities and brutal cruelty of his own life.  This obsessively detailed artwork is true to the ‘art brut’ genre because it was thought to be totally pure- unrestricted by the conventions, teachings and dogma of art history and totally unselfconscious.  The Surrealist Andre Breton considered the artist who he referred to as ‘The Great Wolfli’ among the most important of the 20th century.  These intensely intricate and fevered pages of beautifully complete writings, patterns and illustrations provide a staggering window into the artists imagination and are a sad record of a desperate attempt to leave the torments of reality behind-perhaps a successful one.  Wolfli demonstrates creative drive in its purest and most dedicated form, filling ever page to its very edge.

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