Monthly Archives: June 2012

Adolf Wölfli, composer


Wölfli ’s artwork is dense with text, numbers, and musical notations. Repetitive music was droning at the  Wölfli museum in Prague and I thought it interesting that they had matched such discordant sounds to the exhibit. It is hard to describe the music – haunting and somewhat eerie. There were photographs of  Wölfli  playing his hand-made instruments – rolls of cardboard rolled into a trumpet shape. Although my son manages to produce deep, rumbling sounds from a didgeridoo, I couldn’t see how anyone could produce such sounds on a cardboard tube.

The Adolf Wölfli Foundation addresses the big question: do these musical notes mean anything?

Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music. How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well. More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.

I saw a CD for sale at the museum and asked (through silly sign language) if it was Wölfli’s compositions. Yes, it was. When I finally got to play the CD, I discovered that it was not the music playing at the exhibit, but something similar – more rumbling notes, more discordant sounds in a minor key. The CD cover is blank. I have no idea who composed or performed this music, but suppose it was compiled especially for the exhibit. The Internet offers a bit of help with recordings of  Wölfli ’s simple tunes as well as pieces “inspired” by him. The simple tunes are what you would expect from someone who had grown up hearing folk music.

A few musicians have composed music “inspired” by  Wölfli . Danish composer  Per Nørgård, is probably the best known of these. Here is one of his compositions:    It is ominous. It won’t make you think of a spring meadow…

Finally, we’re back in Canada for the next blog. I’m off to the Toronto area to meet up with Leigh Cooney and Alma Rumball’s family.


Adolf Wolfli in Prague

I know this blog is supposed to be about Canadian outsider art, and I will get back to that topic soon. First I have to tell you about my side trip to Prague when I was in Berlin. I was extremely lucky that a very large collection of Adolf Wölfli’s work was on exhibit at the time.

Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930) is one of the granddaddies of all outsider artists. He was born in Bern, orphaned at the age of 10, lived in state-run foster homes, worked on a farm, and ended up in a psychiatric hospital where he spent the rest of his life. He suffered from psychosis and vivid hallucinations. Wölfli had no previous interest in art, but began drawing spontaneously around 1899 while he was institutionalized. His collection grew to about 25,000 pages of writing and 1,600 drawings.

Wölfli’s prolific writing started with his autobiography From the Cradle to the Grave. It begins in the usual way, with information about the date and place of his birth, and then quickly transforms the details of his desolate life into an epic story of his magnificent childhood. The main character is named Doufi (from Adolf) who leaves Switzerland for America with his family. For the next 3,000 pages, illustrated with 750 drawings, maps, and portraits, Doufi travels around the world and survives grand and dangerous adventures.

In the second part of Wölfli’s writings, the Geographic and Algebraic Books, St. Adolf II describes how to carry out the St. Adolf Giant creation after his death. The earth will be purchased, then the universe. Numbers cannot express the gigantic dimensions of his mental world, so Wölfli expands the numerical system after quadrillion to include regonif, suniff, untif, vidoniss, weratif, xylottif, and so on to the highest number called “anger”.

In the third and fourth collections of writings, Books with Songs and Dances and Album Books with Dances and Marches, Wölfli celebrates his world in poetry, song, scales, drawings, and collages. During the last year of his life, Wölfli worked on a final collection called the Funeral March, as if he were composing a requiem in anticipation of his own death. He illustrates the central themes of his world system in keywords and collages of pictures torn from magazines.

A clinic doctor became interested in Wölfli’s artwork and saved thousands of pages of writings and drawings. Dr. Walter Morgenthaler later published a book  Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), which introduced his patient to the art world. French artist, Jean Dubuffet, saw the work of Wölfli and other artwork from patients in psychiatric institutions and “Art Brut” was founded. (See first post, When you come to a fork in the road.)

The exhibit in Prague was called Wölfli – Creator of the Universe and that was an appropriate description of his life’s work.  The exhibit offered a cross section of Wölfli’s oevre in about 10 rooms of exhibit space.  I watched as viewers inched through the exhibit, savouring the details of every piece. It was definitely not an exhibit to breeze through on your way to the gift shop.

Wölfli’s drawings are extremely intricate; every inch of the page is filled with details that we have come to recognize: his symbolic bird figure, the man with racoon-like eyes, mandelas, tiny dots and later, musical notes and text. At one point Wölfli told the hospital staff that he did not produce the work himself. He thought it should be obvious that he had divine inspiration to produce the artwork as he would never have been able to create it from his own mind. In another comment, Wölfli says that he knows his work is the product of an insane person. I wondered if the line between fantasy and reality was always blurred or whether he had moments of clarity. What is it like to be the creator of a universe?

To sum up Adolf Wölfli’s life work in a few paragraphs does not do justice to the depth and scope of his universe. There is always more to see, more to hear. The next blog will be about Wölfli’s musical compositions.

Postscript to Morton Bartlett

Some readers do not share my view of Bartlett and thankfully they let me know. They raise an important issue: to them, Bartlett clearly crossed the line from obsessive artist to child pornographer. I understand their argument when I view the work through their eyes. Interpretation of his work truly lies with the beholder. But once presented with the opposite view, can we ever see the works in the same light again?

I turned to Lyle Rexer’s book, How to Look at Outsider Art, and find that he acknowledges the erotic nature of the photographs, but argues for their acceptance. He says at page 115:

[Bartlett] would not be the first to have fashioned such intense images of desire, or invested them with a kind of life. The dream and peril of Pygmalion haunt Bartlett’s Barbies, and it is impossible now to view the works separate from prurience regardless of the artist’s insistence that they were a “hobby.” The power of the works lies in their parallel refusal to transgress, as Henry Darger does, or to cloak desire in whimsy, as many self-taught artists do.

At the deepest level, Bartlett’s work is not about violation but contemplation. We surmise this because he took carefully composed photographs of his creations. Again, Bartlett was not the first to couple dolls, desire, and photography. Apart from Cindy Sherman’s work of the 1990s, the best-known example is that of German Hans Bellmer, who created several articulated “figures” in the 1930s and photographed them incessantly.  Bellmer enacted scenes with his dolls, rearranging their parts in a full-scale assault on the female body and, overtly, on the Nazi ideology of  physical perfection. Photography in this case was pornographic witness of various acts of desecration.

Undeniably erotic, Bartlett’s photos intend and achieve something Bellmer avoided – poignancy. They also reveal the power of the camera, by its fidelity to the subject, to bestow life. In three dimensions, the dolls are, finally, just dolls, near automata. But in front of the camera, they first become posed and captured individuals and then memorial, erotic remembrances. They take their place almost seamlessly among the vast archive of the once-but-no-longer-alive captured in photographs, and in death they gain a convincing vitality they do not have as objects. The double intuition of the nature of dolls and photography is Bartlett’s complex achievement.

I know I’ve got readers who have contrary views on Bartlett’s work. Let me know where you stand.

Encouraging artistic expression

I had an opportunity to attend the opening of a unique art exhibit in Berlin. I was invited by the director of Gallery Art Cru, the only outsider art gallery in Berlin. Germany has an interesting philosophy when it comes to nurturing art and everyone is included. People with mental disabilities are invited to attend special studios to experiment with art supplies. An artist is present, but he or she does not teach art nor give direction to the attendees. The artist’s role is to explain how materials are used and to answer questions that arise. It is not art therapy, as there is no discussion about the meaning of the works created; nor is the studio’s purpose to “heal” individuals. It is just a studio space, but remarkable things happen there.

A private law firm in Berlin hosted the opening of Marco Born’s first exhibit. Marco, a young man in his 30s, had been experimenting in the studio for a few years. When he discovered painting, he focused solely on painting. When he explored clay sculpture, he did nothing but sculpture. And when he worked on metal sculptures, that became his passion until he felt he understood the medium.

Although Marco didn’t speak English, we talked about this work through a friend who translated for us. Marco doesn’t prefer one media to another – he has thoroughly enjoyed every day in the studio. I really loved his clay scultpures, which were hand-molded and rough-textured. Beautiful to look at and touch. If I lived in Berlin, I would have lugged one home with me.

Marco also learned to create sculptures with metal. These are welded metal strips around a rock. I would have lugged one of these home with me, too.

What I found so different in Berlin is the prevailing belief that art heals, even when it is done for no specific purpose and without instruction. This concept is fascinating and intriguing to me. Is it true? If one of my artist-readers has any thoughts on this topic, please drop me a note. I suspect you have a lot to teach me.