ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)
ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)
ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)
ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)
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ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)


ADOLF WÖLFLI (1864-1930)
inscribed (left and right edges), and dated 1924 (upper left), the reverse overall inscribed
colored pencil and graphite on paper
12 ½ x 18 7⁄8 in.
Executed in 1924.
Galerie Christian Berst, Paris
Beurret Bailly Widmer Auktioner, Basel, Switzerland, 19 June 2019, lot 77
Exhibition catalogue, The Self-Taught Enigma (Saint-Étienne, 2021), p. 12, illustrated.
Saint-Étienne, Museé d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, The Self-Taught Enigma, 9 October 2021 - 3 April 2022.

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Cara Zimmerman
Cara Zimmerman Head of Americana and Outsider Art

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Lot Essay

A troubled young man, Adolf Wölfli was diagnosed with psychosis after being orphaned at the age of 10 and experiencing almost constant suffering as a result of state failures. In 1895, he was institutionalized at the Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Shortly after his admission, Wölfli began to draw. As seen in the present work, his drawings are characterized by his trademark dense, color-filled compositions supported by text, and at times, musical compositions. His magnum opus, a multi-volume, 25,000-page epic illustrated with text chronicles his imagined life as a knight, an emperor and a saint. While many of Wölfli’s drawings were created in book format, he also made single-sheet drawings he called portraits. Dr. Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist at the clinic, took interest in Wölfli’s output and in 1921 published the seminal text Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (Madness and Art), a full-length study of Wölfli’s life and art. This was one of the first major publications in the field that would later become Outsider Art.

Several decades later, in the 1940s, artist Jean Dubuffet advanced the conversation around asylum art beyond the study of psychosis and into the realm of formal analysis. He and André Breton became active advocates for Wölfli’s work, even visiting the Waldau Clinic in the mid-1950s. In a 1965 exhibition catalogue for the eleventh Exposition international du surréalisme, Breton wrote that Wölfli’s “vivid creations…as an ensemble represent one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century.” (Daniel Baumann, “Calculation of Interest: The Response to Adolf Wölfli’s work, 1921-2002,” in Elka Spoerri and Daniel Baumann, The Art of Adolf Wölfli (New York, 2003), p.33).

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