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Adolf Wölfli, William Blake and Folk Art: A Brief Meditation on Human Creativity.

By Carys Maloney

Adolf Wölfli was an outsider artist—or folk artist—who inarguably suffered a childhood of significant hardship. As described in Elka Spoerri et al’s The Art of Adolf Wölfli (2003), Wölfli was a victim of abuse and slavery, becoming orphaned at age nine. Wölfli himself became violent in his adult years, coming to inflict abuse on the young and eventually being admitted to Waldau Mental Asylum, wherein he was treated for schizophrenia. Here, he would spend three decades (c.1899-1930) crafting his visual and literary semi-autobiography, comprising more than 25,000 pages, in which he turned his lived experiences into a rendered utopian dreamscape through a fusion of illustrations and words. His work reads as a metaphysical manoeuvre through the terrain of his own mind. From the scarcity of an assigned asylum cell—in which whitewashed walls can provide minimal artistic inspiration—Wölfli, a precursor of the Surrealist plundering their unconscious, turned inward: scaling the depths of his own afflicted psyche to source his works of art.

And yet there is every possibility that Wölfli had no knowledge of such Freudian themes, such psychological notions underpinning art (Surrealism as a movement did not emerge until some twenty years later). Nor did he necessarily have any intention of sculpting some odyssey of epic feats, of a grandeur comparable with Homer or Dante. He had no audience, no public, no reason to seek recognition nor make a living. Why, then, would he bother to embark on such a bold, time-consuming excursion at all?

It is documented by Wölfli’s doctor, Walter Morgenthaler, in his 1921 publication A Psychiatric Patient as Artist that drawing calmed Wölfli and eased his aggressive outbursts. Creation was, then, for him: necessary, therapeutic, medicine. In his work, we see Wölfli manifesting a better world for himself—expressing and modifying his lived experience, both internal and external, according to his creative will. Such creation has been an innate human need since culture’s dawn; one need only look to the violence-laden plays of Ancient Greece, albeit written and performed for more entertaining or moralistic purposes. Looking to the past and to what we know of ourselves, humanity evidently has an unshakeable urge to transmute desire into artistic endeavour—to give physicality to formless thought and feeling—as a carefree child may do, before learning to see art-making as a meticulous skill to be perfected, rather than a celebratory activity of joy, or indeed, of need. It is also probable that as humans, we do not want to be forgotten; we want to leave traces of ourselves that will transcend time, for our art to traverse the centuries. A Romantic ideal, granted—and certainly not a new one. As the famed Bengali poet Tagore scribed in The Gardener (1913):

‘Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?

I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.

Open your doors and look abroad.

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.

In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.’ (sic)

Art touches people and tells tales unbounded by space, epoch, culture or place. In this way, the created surpasses the creator. But perhaps this is all far too high-flown and poetic, for rarely does an artist sit down with such a motive. If they did, sheer pressure would halt their paintbrush or pen before any doubt of their own ability ever could.

On first encountering Wölfli’s otherworldly evocations of his life past, I could not help but be reminded of an artist born in the century preceding Wölfli’s own: William Blake. Blake, conversely, is nowadays a household name—he too was similarly interested in combining the image and the word, the motif, and the poem, producing visual narratives (or ‘illuminated books’) such as his magnum opus Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, completed in 1820.

Today we know Blake as a pioneer, a figure to be venerated in the fields of art and literature—even being referred to as ‘the essential British artist’ by critic Johnathan Jones in his 2010 article on Blake for The Guardian. Yet as with so many artists we now hail as masterful, Blake was ridiculed by his contemporaries—the art establishment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—who perhaps could not yet grasp his visions in their authentic ethereality.

Adolf Wölfli, illustrated page, c.1908, pencil and coloured pencil on newsprint (Source: Adolf Wölfli Foundation,

William Blake, The First Book of Urizen Plate 14, 1796, etching with paint, watercolour and ink on paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm (Source: Tate,

Blake can be found adorning the walls of multiple art galleries worldwide and is still largely loved and exhibited, evidenced by the extensive Blake retrospective held at Tate Britain in 2020. His poetry has been compiled and published innumerable times, by such familiar names as Wordsworth Editions and Vintage Classics of Random House. Certainly, it is what he deserves; Blake’s unique and media-traversing art is something to be admired, standing apart from the established canon with an unapologetic, alluring pride. In such a way, he truly embodied the essence of folk art as an art made without concern for the expectations set by the mainstream art world, or domineering institutions. Yet what of Wölfli’s tale of 1600 drawings, completed with no artistic education and—as Morgenthaler states—the stubs of colouring pencils?

In recent times, however, exhibitions on Wölfli have been held: notably, an interactive exhibition spanning the summer of 2021 at The Creaviva Children’s Museum in his native Bern, Switzerland. Yet the question remains: who decides who ‘makes it’ into the history of art and who doesn’t? Should we value adherence to traditional conventions of beauty, or should we value innovation—not for its own sake, but for the sake of making the best of what one has, artistic knowledge or lack thereof? And should this courage to create, whether it be self-conscious or not, be hailed in the same way as visual mastery is within the Western artistic tradition?

Folk artists themselves, at least, are concerned with one thing: creation, not veneration. It is just as Blake once expressed in Jerusalem:

‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's.

I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.’


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