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by Elka Spoerri, Daniel Baumann, and Edward M. Gomez
American Folk Art Museum and Princeton University Press, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 4th 2004

The Art of Adolf Wolfli

Like Henry Darger, Adolf Wolfli was an artist outside the mainstream of twentieth century art with a prodigious output.  From his early work, 1905-1907, only fifty drawings survive.  The main body of his work created between 1908 and his death in 1930, known as his narrative oeuvre, consists of forty-five large volumes and sixteen school notebooks, with 25,000 pages.  Wolfli lived in a Swiss psychiatric institution for most of his life, after he had attempted to engage in sexual activity with young girls.  He was sent to the Waldau Mental Asylum in 1895 and lived there for the rest of his life.  He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and declared dangerous to society.  Although he was agitated for many years, he drew when he was calmer.  In the early years of his drawing, his work was mostly destroyed, but he gradually became more successful and was able to afford art supplies through the sale of commissioned work.  Now there is considerable interest in Wolfli's art, and this book was published to mark the first solo exhibition of the American Folk Art Museum in New York dedicated to his work. 

The Art of Adolf Wolfli contains three essays on the artist; Elka Spoerri writes about his life and work; Daniel Baumann on the response to his work; and Edward Gomez on the Wolfli as visionary graphic designer.  There are forty-seven pages of plates of his work, which obviously only provide a glimpse of his huge output, but nevertheless, this is an excellent resource for those with an interest in art brut.  The plates are much smaller than the original works: most of Wolfli's drawings were on half-newspaper size, about 29" x 39", and it is difficult to make out the details on his densely decorated pictures.  The book's essays are well-written and full of useful information about the artist's life; Gomez's article is a particularly helpful discussion of the relation between Wolfli's art and other twentieth century movements and the light it may shed on the experience of schizophrenia. 

The work of people with mental illness that falls into the category of "outsider art" has been idealized by some as exhibiting some kind of purity, untainted by the theories of art or fads and fashions within the community of critics, art schools, and famous artists.  Like the work of children and some non-western artists, it is often considered to be valuable as an expression of pure feeling or unfiltered creativity, and thus serves as a challenge of sorts to the established art world, which relies so much on the ever-changing parade of different movements and "-isms."  It is supposed that outsider artists do not care who is "in" and do not react to the history of western art, often because they are blissfully unaware of it.  So the outsider artist seems to be an innocent; and given the pervasiveness of mass media and the familiarity of the work of major twentieth century painters to most of the population, one would almost have to be a recluse or locked away in a remote asylum to be unaffected by these major traditions.  Furthermore, those with mental illnesses have a distinct perspective on the world, partly caused by ways that their illness has altered their minds and partly because of the different treatment they have received at the hands of society and psychiatric institutions.  This distinctive perspective may make their art all the more important.

This romanticization of the art of the mentally ill is problematic for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, it fits in with a certain stereotype of the madperson as a prophet or the "fool" with special insight.  This isn't necessarily stigmatizing, and indeed, maybe it helps to work against some kinds of stigma, but it at least runs the risk of valorizing the creations of the mentally ill for the reasons that are too quick and which need further examination.  One might raise parallel concerns about the notion of the "tribal primitive" as an example of uncontaminated creative energy, which, even when used in admiring way, seems to feed into some racist images of other cultures.  An even more obviously problematic example that might serve as a parallel to the case of the "mad artist" is the old-fashioned attitude towards women as too pure and innocent to be involved in public life, and therefore needing to be sheltered from making decisions about society or participating in communal decision-making.  Maybe admiration of the "outsider artist" perpetuates the idea that such people are better off separated from the rest of society, so as not to be polluted by modern culture. 

There are other troubling questions about how to evaluate the work of outsider artists such as Wolfli.  It is obviously interesting, striking, amazing, and intriguing.  But, precisely because it seems to have been done in complete isolation from the rest of the history of art, the similarities and contrasts one might make to other styles of art are superficial.  Indeed, unless one is able to understand the old German language that Wolfli wrote on many of his drawings, and unless one has access to the huge volume of work that he created, even the personal meanings of most of his work is lost of the viewer.  One is left looking at the shapes and the minute details, and one's appreciation goes little beyond the thought that it must have taken incredible patience and devotion to create such work, especially in a mental asylum.  And especially since he had a chronic and serious mental illness.  

Some commentators have made much of the fact that Wolfli incorporated clippings from magazines in his later works, anticipating some of the collage of other twentieth century artists.  But the interpretation of this has to be very different for the two cases.  Experimentation with the form of art by avant guarde artists in the early twentieth century by is a reaction to previous conceptions of art, and indeed, much of twentieth century art is highly conceptual in its motivation, being as much about the nature of art itself as it is about some subject separate from art.  Indeed, what defines a work as a piece of art has often been the action of the artist so labeling it and daring to shock the art world with his or her outrageous ideas.  Many works that took a great deal of skill, thought and even artistry to create are not generally considered to be "works of art"; music videos, magazine advertisements, TV sitcoms and drama series, spray paint murals by graffiti artists, flower arrangements, landscaped gardens, or the design of automobiles.  These contested cases have led to some excellent philosophical discussion of the nature and purpose of art, and outsider art can do the same.  The work of someone like Wolfli is an excellent test case for aesthetic theory, and may help us not only to better appreciate what is special about Wolfli but also to reevaluate how we understand art more abstractly. 

Of course, there is hardly consensus as to what counts as art, let alone great art, and some might want to do away with all the pretension, posturing and the underlying economic purposes of the art world and just stop asking the question "is it art?"  Indeed, some might hold up the work of outsider artists as an example of creations that one can appreciate and enjoy without being immersed in the history of art and its ephemeral fads and fashions.  Personally, I don't find that a satisfying move because the work of artists such as Wolfli and Darger is so puzzling and even alienating.  There is a powerful temptation to look at it as providing an insight into the world of the mentally ill, or to just see its as a symptom of the obsessions and compulsions that go with mental illness, rather than simply appreciating its aesthetic qualities.  Wolfli's pictures are fascinating in their complexity and lead one to speculate about the meanings of the repeated symbols and the narrative progression through the different works, but ultimately they are extremely mysterious and puzzling, and it is far from clear that a thorough study of them would solve the mystery.  His work, even more than Darger's, is profoundly bizarre and resistant to interpretation, and beyond the geometrical structures does not invite much aesthetic enjoyment. 

Nevertheless, The Art of Adolf Wolfli is an important addition to the collection of books on outsider art, and anyone who has a serious interest in this area should take a look at it. 

 

 

Links:

 

The artwork of Adolf Wolfli

 

Other reviews:

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.