The Artists

Adolf Wölfli
The man who rewrote his life

Portrait of Adolf Wölfli

A damaged mind

There is power in autobiography. The ability to tell the story of your own life can be an opportunity to set the record straight, or edit the past. Few people create an autobiography that invents a new history from scratch, turning a violent, manic orphan onto an emperor and a saint.

Adolf Wölfli was a dangerous man, with an agonizingly tragic past. Adolf’s father left when he was five, and died a year later. Without the means to support her seven children, Adolf’s mother had him indentured to a local farmer, where he suffered abuse and continual overwork. In 1873, when Adolf was eight, his mother died, and without hope or family the boy sank into a childhood of slavery.

At 18, Wölfli left the farms of Zaziwil to go to Bern. He worked as a handyman, but lived in isolation and loneliness. Over the next decade, Wölfli’s behavior became aggressive, and instead of developing adult relationships, he began approaching young girls. He spent time in prison, and finally, after a third incident—an assault on a young child, Wölfli was committed to the Waldau Mental Asylum, where he lived the rest of his life.

Reimagining the world

Wölfli was violent at first, breaking furniture and his cell door, but drawing calmed him, and he was given paper and pencils. This was the beginning of his autobiography. In 1908, Adolf Wölfli began his magnum opus, a utopian retelling of his life spanning 25,000 pages and thousands of illustrations, maps and invented musical scores. “From the Cradle to the Grave” - the first volume, tells the story of his childhood, not as an enslaved orphan, but as a world traveler, an adventurer who catalogued talking plants and met with foreign kings. The next four volumes documented an even greater change: the child-traveler Wölfli having attained all earthly wisdom, evolving into a cosmological, metaphysical structure called the “Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation” a force of order that brings structure to the entire universe.

The intense, inventive work of Adolf Wölfli was documented in 1921 by Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at Waldau, in a paper titled Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler “A Psychiatric Patient as Artist.” This was the art world’s introduction to Wölfli, and while in his lifetime he traded his drawings to visitors for colored pencils, his work was rediscovered by Jean Dubuffet around 1950, and included in the growing Art Brut movement. Wölfli’s art has been played by musicians, studied by psychologists, and became one of the first examples of Outsider Art. But these are more than drawings—they’re a new world, created to replace the pain and tragedy of life with adventure, and transform their artist from an orphan into a god-king.


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Reed Enger, "Adolf Wölfli, The man who rewrote his life," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 03, 2016; last modified November 06, 2022,

Adolf Wölfli was a Swiss Outsider Artist and Self-Taught Artist born on February 29, 1864. Wölfli died on November 6, 1930.

Mental Asylum Band-Copse, Adolf Wölfli

Mental Asylum Band-Copse 1910

Australia is without Doubt the Habitat of the Giant Strawberry, Adolf Wölfli

Australia is without Doubt the Habitat of the Giant Strawberry 1911

Giant City, Band-Wald-Hall, Adolf Wölfli

Giant City, Band-Wald-Hall 1911

Gourmet Food Store: Feeding the Fishes, Adolf Wölfli

Gourmet Food Store: Feeding the Fishes 1911

The Atlantic Ocean and the Harbor of Cradle-Beach, Adolf Wölfli

The Atlantic Ocean and the Harbor of Cradle-Beach 1911

The Eyeglass-Butterfly in India, Adolf Wölfli

The Eyeglass-Butterfly in India 1911

Sit today, my dear child: whosoever's hungry, may bark: the warhose flies in the wind: the pointer with the trowel: is truly my worst foe.

From the Cradle to the Grave, Excerpt 1912

Crucifixion of the Holy St. Adolf, Adolf Wölfli

Crucifixion of the Holy St. Adolf 1914

Cleopatra — St. Adolf-Ring, Giant City in India, Adolf Wölfli

Cleopatra — St. Adolf-Ring, Giant City in India 1915

The St. Adolf-Ship in the Great Eastern Sea, Adolf Wölfli

The St. Adolf-Ship in the Great Eastern Sea 1918

The St. Adolf-Swiss-Tower, Adolf Wölfli

The St. Adolf-Swiss-Tower 1918

Christoph Columbus, Adolf Wölfli

Christoph Columbus 1930

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