Rethinking (Art) History (without Reaching a Conclusion)
It is not a coincidence if Adolf Wölfli’s work ends up at the Kunstmuseum Bern.1 In that city, you could find a community—curator Harald Szeemann; curator of the Paul Klee Foundation Jürgen Glaesemer; art historian Elka Spoerri and her husband the psychiatrist and professor Theodor Spoerri; artists like Bernhard Luginbühl, Meret Oppenheim, and Markus Raetz; art dealer Toni Gerber—convinced that Wölfli’s oeuvre, and not just his, had to be considered art and should therefore be housed in an art museum.
Yet, there were several obstacles, prejudices, and misconceptions to overcome, which shaped—and continue to shape—the Adolf Wölfli Foundation’s mediation of Wölfli’s work. Priority one was to take his work out of the context of psychiatry, both literally and figuratively. The second priority was to dissociate it from folk art and naïve art. The third was to take a critical stance towards the idea of art brut and outsider art. And the fourth priority—and base to all—was to rigorously study this oeuvre comprising 25,000 pages.
Within this context, contemporary art offered an alternative and promising point of entry. It was sketched out through the “Bern Group” school of thought around people like Szeemann, Spoerri, Glaesemer, Oppenheim, and Gerber, to which I also subscribed and continue to. Their approach seemed meaningful on several levels: firstly, a comparison with contemporary art provided new ways of assessing the stupendous radicalism of Wölfli’s work. Secondly, it de-stigmatized Wölfli and his conception of the world, offering a broader and more appealing context (so one hoped, at least). And thirdly, it continued an important tradition: the recognition of artists like Wölfli had always come from the avant-garde milieu; they were the first supporters, and the most interesting and interested audience. What could be more natural than to look around in the place where art was being thought anew, where the idea of a broadened concept of art had gained acceptance and where interdisciplinary thinking was cultivated. All this promised fresh ideas, new allies, and useful tools for a better understanding of Wölfli’s art.
“Our” goal was to inscribe Wölfli’s art into the art canon. Although it is now widely respected and discussed, I must admit that as of today we have not managed to do so. And maybe this is a good thing. I have repeatedly asked myself why. In this context, I would like to formulate a hypothesis, which is open to discussion.
It has long been supposed that the reason we have trouble thinking of this art as part of the art museum and art history lies in the fact that it was created by outsiders withdrawn from the art world and its narrative. However, I believe there are other factors at play, a dilemma or a contradiction which (maybe fortunately) remains almost insurmountable.
The fact is that our relationship to art—in terms of field of study and museums—is based on the conviction that biography and art have to be considered separately. No one argues that this painting or that poem is simply the expression of an author’s or artist’s experience. The twentieth century has conceded the autonomy of art to the greatest extent possible. It is a successful history of emancipation from the Church, the nobility, and the state—which literally came with a price: art was turned into a commodity free to be traded and moved around. To be able to do so, it needed a form accordingly: art had to be adaptable to all sort of contexts and markets and the better it did so, the more successful it was.
This also meant that the viewers were given a much more active role. Namely they were and still are empowered—without prior knowledge about the origin and content of an artwork—to read it, discuss it, form a judgment about it, and acquire it. Twentieth century art is in all its diversity ultimately always an invitation to the spectator to build his or her own thoughts, interpretation, and opinion. Thus, we are dealing here with a twofold emancipation, the autonomy of art and the autonomy of the recipient. This is the unwritten contract on which art history, the institution, and even the market is based. However, this key contract of twentieth century art does not apply to artists like Adolf Wölfli.
In Wölfli’s case, and in the case of art brut in general, the reception took another path. Here, the blending of biography and work were reintroduced and considered legitimate and necessary. This art—outsider art, art brut—was understood as the expression of an artist’s biography, as its symptom, which lead to a widespread development of biographical voyeurism. As questionable as this seems, engaging with Wölfli, one can’t escape the need to pay attention to his biography, and this attention is absolutely crucial. While it should never be used to project his life story onto his work, it highlights large historical and societal shifts, which do provide context for a better understanding of his work. Not taking into account Wölfli’s biography would be to repress harsh realities and great injustice. To engage with Wölfli’s oeuvre is to expose oneself to very different, often contradictory ways of reading and understanding—and all of them have their legitimacy. It is a stunning Gesamtkunstwerk, but also a panorama from below. It is a view of the world from someone who was shut out, stood on the lowest social rung, and was not allowed to express himself publicly. It is a historic document as well as a unique artistic achievement. It is both an exercise in emancipation and autonomy and an epic document of insurmountable dependency.
So facing this contradiction as it is at the core of Wölfli’s oeuvre, there is a polemic to be made: even though the artistic and intellectual avant-garde was responsible for the discovery, conservation, and legitimization of Wölfli’s oeuvre, it was their fundamental beliefs in the autonomy of art that prevented it from being inscribed in the institution and the canon. Or, to move one step further: works like those of Wölfli and others served to better draw the outer limits and ultimately lay down the institution’s exclulsive identity and conception of art. Or, to change perspective, we can say that the power of Wölfli’s oeuvre is not to a small amount due to its twofold resistance to interpretation and assimilation, which reveals its exceptional quality, but also our inability to receive it within our ways of thinking. This is exactly its power.
From the 1960s on, modernism’s belief in autonomy, and the strict separation of biography and art was notably questioned by postcolonialism and feminism: writers, curators, and artists from within these ranks exposed such notions to be the illusions (or ideologies) of the white, Western man. They brought, by means of historical awareness and gender questions, a new biographical term into play, which has since opened up new avenues. Interestingly, artists like Wölfli should have benefited from these changes, but in reality these methods couldn’t really be transferred. One reason, if not the main reason, is that in the case of postcolonialism and feminism, the critique emerged from the ranks of those who were affected; they organized themselves and demanded new modes of reading. Artists like Wölfli cannot make themselves heard, not individually, nor as a group. Quite to the contrary, we the curators, scholars, artists or spectators always speak for them, about them, instead of them. They own the art, but we manage it.2
As scholars, curators, and visitors, we are part of a culture of Bevormundung, persistently patronizing others. This is what a work like the one by Wölfli reminds us of, this is why we love it and refuse it, why the institution wants to include it and fails at it. They are the thorn and subversion urging us to constantly re-examine our thinking.
- The oeuvre of Adolf Wölfli (1864 – 1930) was transferred to the Kunstmuseum Bern in 1972, from the University Clinic of Psychiatry at the Waldau, for its conservation and study. In 1975, the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was founded and has been hosted by the museum since then. The following year, also in Switzerland, the Collection de l’Art Brut opened in Lausanne, offering a different model to present the works of artists who eluded established notions about art.
- In this regard, we can certainly have sympathy for Dubuffet’s project, of withdrawing this art from conventional museums in order to reserve it for a specialized structure. In so doing, other problems and contradictions related to ghettoization and idealization emerged.