Adolf Wölfli was born in Bern. He 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 farm labourer and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time. Sometime after being freed, he was arrested for a similar offense and was admitted in 1895 to the Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, a psychiatric hospital where he spent the rest of his adult life. He was very disturbed and sometimes violent on admission, leading to him being kept in isolation for his early time at hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.
The images Wölfli produced were complex, intricate and intense. They worked to the very edges of the page with detailed borders. In a manifestation of Wölfli’s “horror vacui”, every empty space was filled with two small holes. Wölfli called the shapes around these holes his “birds.”
His images also incorporated an idiosyncratic musical notation. This notation seemed to start as a purely decorative affair but later developed into real composition which Wölfli would play on a paper trumpet.
In 1908, he set about creating a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, containing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations. This work was a mix of elements of his own life blended with fantastical stories of his adventures from which he transformed himself from a child to ‘Knight Adolf’ to ‘Emperor Adolf’ and finally to ‘St Adolf II’. Text and illustrations formed the narrative, sometimes combining multiple elements on kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and colour.