A troubled young man, Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) was institutionalized at the Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, in 1985, where he remained for the remainder of his life. Shortly after his admission, Wölfli began to draw; his magnum opus, a multi-volume, 25,000-page epic illustrated text chronicled 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. Whether in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper, his works are dense, colored-filled images supported by text and, at times, musical compositions. Dr. Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist at the clinic, took interest in Wölfli’s output and in 1921, published the now-seminal text Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), 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 coined the term art brut (or "raw art") and advanced the conversation around asylum art beyond the study of psychosis and into the realm of formal analysis. Dubuffet and fellow artist André Breton (among others) established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 as an organization dedicated to preserving this type of art. Breton became an active advocate 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).
Breton owned Untitled (No. 23), and the drawing hung in his studio, directly behind his desk, in the 1950s (fig. 1).