Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland, was abused both physically and sexually as a child, and was orphaned at the age of 10. He thereafter grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a indentured child labourer and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time. After being freed, he was re-arrested for a similar offense and in 1895 was admitted to the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern where he spent the rest of his adult life.1
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Adolf Wölfli, a former farmhand and laborer, produced a monumental, 25,000-page illustrated narrative in Waldau, a mental asylum near Bern, Switzerland. Through a complex web of texts, drawings, collages and musical compositions, Wölfli constructed a new history of his childhood and a glorious future with its own personal mythology. The French Surrealist André Breton described his work as “one of the three or four most important oeuveres of the twentieth century”.
Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the Waldau Clinic, took a particular interest in Wölfli’s art and his condition, later publishing Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) in 1921 which first brought Wölfli to the attention of the art world. The images he produced were complex, intricate and intense, he worked to the very edges of the page with detailed borders. Wölfli produced a huge number of works during his life, often working with the barest of materials and trading smaller works with visitors to the clinic to obtain pencils, paper or other essentials. After Wölfli died at Waldau in 1930 his works were taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Bern. Later the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was formed to preserve his art for future generations and its collection is now housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland.2
1 © Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts – Bern, Switzerland
2 Bio excerpt courtesy of Wikipedia.