[Adolf Wolfli, The Cevelar Mary (Funeral March, p.4038), (detail), 1929]
Adolf Wölfli was a mad artist, a schizophrenic who molested three-year-old girls. Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1864, Wölfli died in 1930 at the age of 66. Thus, his life spanned the era of Bismarck, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, World War I, the rise of Fascism, and the great depression of the 1930s. While the world was changing, he spent 35 years in the Waldau Mental Asylum in Bern being a graphic designer. Or so the argument goes.
In his own lifetime, Wölfli established an international reputation as an artist; he later won recognition from Jean Dubuffet and André Breton; and he has influenced contemporary artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Annette Messager, and Meret Oppenheim. In the seminal work on mad art, Insania Pingens (1961), he stands out as a visionary. Of course, "outsider art" is deeply influenced by Dubuffet's collection of works by outcasts and the mentally ill what became known as art brut. Wölfli is its greatest model.
Last year, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City mounted a major exhibition of Wölfli's work, and an amazing (but problematic) catalogue, The Art of Adolf Wölfli, was published. Everyone from The New Yorker to Jason Kottke loved it. (A concise biography is on artnet; many of his drawings are on inmostra.)
[Adolf Wolfli, Ria Griganttika-Snake, Australia (Cradle to the Grave, Book 4, p.357), (detail), 1911]
His work, primarily comprised of 45 hand-bound volumes with over 25,000 pages, is filled with prose texts, poems, fantastic narratives, myths, songs, travelogues, musical compositions an endless collage of calligraphy and illustration to create a description of an imaginary cosmos. There is madness throughout:
"Motto. Forword. Careful: Take care. The most-honored gentlemen, printer K.J. Wiss, Gurten-Gass, Bern: And, the bookbinder, employed by the latter, are hereby politely asked and requested to carefully examine the numbered pages, from page 1 to page 34 at the end of the last chapter in this little book, Notebook no. 5, and to follow my instructions and remarks precisely and punctually. This will not be to your disadvantage. I was frightened in front of my dear darling, when I wanted to marry, anno 1885 in Bern: And, thus, from that hour on, a loon. Probatum, esst: in the sea-bed. Good morning you gentlemen, and ladies:? what do you want, from, me: I am not among the tame: And yet no wild animal. Signed, Adolf Wölfli, Bern." [c.1912]
[Adolf Wölfli, General View of the Island Neveranger (detail), 1911]
There is an interesting art history debate about whether mad art is real art, and generally "outsider art" is included in contemporary narratives of art history. But the recent catalogue of Wölfli's work by Elka Spoerri and Daniel Baumann ventures into territory I have not seen before: an attempt to elevate an artist to the higher plane of being a graphic designer. This argument is made by Edward M. Gomez in his essay: "Adolf Wölfli Visionary Graphic Designer."
Gomez is an experienced writer, contributing to a book on Yoko Ono (another mad artist?), as well as authoring a long series of books on "new" design: New Design: London: The Edge of Graphic Design and companion volumes on Miami, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He's also a writer for The New York Times, doing stories like, "If Art Is a Commodity, Shopping Can Be an Art." [He's also a graphic designer, according to his biography.]
I want to quote Gomez on Wölfli because he takes a basic 19th-century-madman-artist and turns him into the model 20th-century visual communicator:
"Throughout his voluminous oeuvre, a number of skillfully developed components of Wölfli's finely crafted drawings call attention to his accomplishments as a graphic designer. And because conscientious planning is fundamental to the practice of design which, by definition, entails creating order out of chaos or giving meaningful form to ideas, information, or raw materials the assumption that Wolfli made knowing decisions about how he shaped his drawings and bookworks informs any analysis of his achievements as what is known in design terms today as a 'visual communicator.'"
Gomez also wants Wölfli to be a book artist ("decisive use of the book as his information-storage device and information tool"); a multidimensional visionary ("not as static images, but rather in motion, transpiring in time..., complete with sounds and atmospheric details?"); and a new media designer ("the quintessentially postmodern act of appropriating mass-media images and using them for his own authorial purposes"). In his prose, he works hard to find ways to use the word "design" in every sentence where "artist" appears: "[Genuine artists] produce works of lasting memory and wonder ... almost always in some discernible and essential if inestimable measure by design." His conclusion is that "a good artist is a good designer, too."
I am troubled by this argument (and use of language). Adolf Wölfli may well have created form out of chaos. I would hope that designers could learn something from his drawings: the freedom he found in symmetry, the unique "typographic" approach he took to musical notation; and the nutty way he creates beauty out of pattern. But we should not aspire to learn from artists such as Wölfli because he has been artificially labeled a "visual communicator." Graphic designers should worry when "design" becomes the new catchall phrase, an easy description for all artistic endeavors. If we want the words graphic design to mean anything, we should challenge their loose application to everything and everyone.
It's one thing to call Adolf Wölfli a madman. It's even worse to call him a graphic designer.
[Adolf Wolfli, At a Paris Art Show (Geographic and Algebraic Books, Book 13, p.31b), 1915]