Like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli 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 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.
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