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dr. walter morgenthaler

Doctor and psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler (1882-1965) came to Waldau as a young intern in 1907. He became interested in Wölfli’s activities and supported him in subsequent years by providing him with drawing supplies as well as acknowledgement and appreciation. His involvement culminated with his 1921 study Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (Madness and Art. The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli), which was read by, among others, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Madness and Art was a groundbreaking publication that made Wölfli’s work public. It is also the first time that a mental patient is described as an artist, and it named him by his full name, not his medical alias. Madness and Art was ridiculed by the psychiatric community and only marginally accepted by art historians. Since neither interpretive system had room for such views, it found itself adrift between the two disciplines. As such, Morgenthaler’s study was just as much without a home as Wölfli’s art. The most encouraging responses came from artists, writers and (later) musicians and composers. Over the following years, Wölfli’s reception by the artistic community continued, contributing significantly not only to the fact that his work has survived, but also that it was taken seriously.


“His method of work conveys the impression of urgency, of an internal neccessity; Wölfli seems to follow a law, to obey the ineluctable. He works with great ardour but without showing many signs of pleasure. Only occasionally, when someone shows interest in a half-completed drawing, will he say with a smile of satisfaction, “There, you see, that’s going to be something really good”.

“If one asks him at the outset what he intends to draw on the sheet, he will sometimes answer unhesitatingly, as if it were self-evident, that he is going to draw a giant hotel, a high mountain, a great goddess, or whatever. But often, on the other hand, he cannot even tell you what he wants to draw when he is about to start; he doesn‘t know yet, he will have to wait and see. It isn’t rare that he irritatedly evades such questions altogether, saying that people should leave him alone, that he has more important things to do than chatter. Wölfli is in many ways kinaesthetic: he thinks with his pencil, however, it is often movement alone that inspires him.”

“The effort to retain as much as possible from the abundant life stream of his soul must be his hardest task. He himself expressed this with good humour one day while showing a half-filled page: “There’s the work! You can’t imagine how taxing it is to try not to forget anything. It would surely drive a person crazy if he weren’t so already.” It is also not uncommon to hear him assert that it is not really he himself who invents all his pictures. Instead, he has drawn it all by divine order during his voyages throughout the universe: “Do you really think I could just make all this up in my head?

Walter Morgenthaler, Madness and Art. The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli, 1921


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