The artist as an evil person: Do we celebrate the art or vilify it?

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Santanu Borah talks about one of his favourite artists who was committed for aberrant sexual behaviour

One of the biggest questions that we ask today is, should an artist who has less than an admirable life be regarded as an artist or celebrated?

Wölfli’s work was complex. Made with colour pencils, his labourious effort was clearly visible. He also used musical notations in his own idiosyncratic way.

If you look at many artists, you might have a mixed opinion. Leo Tolstoy was an example of saintliness. He decided to become anonymous and disappear among the “serfs” in the evening of his life. There are others who would not qualify as great human beings. In fact, while these artists made great art, you would not want them to be ideals or examples to emulate because they were troubled.

This is my view. An artist is not here to be an ethical model for anyone. An artist is here to make art. Art comes from various sources, often from bedlam and squalor. An artist must be celebrated for his or her art, but their private lives might be something that you would not want to touch with a barge pole. The poet Anne Sexton abused her own daughter, but she wrote some painfully beautiful confessional poems. To write like Sexton would take the courage of a hundred lions, but the fact that she wasn’t a noble mother is not lost on any of us.

The question is, is art and morality connected? I don’t think it is. The artist is not the keeper of a society’s ethics. The artist is only a mirror. A murderer might paint a great picture which a priest might not be able to conceive of. The fact is, in order to create a fine piece of art, you don’t have to be a saint. What you need to be is a person who has hued their skills and imbued it with the lava of truth, something that burns and speaks forth with great eloquence. The truth will make you uncomfortable but it will, eventually, set you free.

Whenever I talk of troubled artists, the most common example is that of Vincent van Gogh, that most cliched refrain. However, if you want to really look at the “evil” that lurks within an artist, a person like Adolf Wölfli is a much better example.

Let me tell you little about Wölfli. He was abused both physically and sexually as a child. At the age of ten, he was orphaned. He then grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He even worked as an indentured child labourer and then joined the army. He often attempted to perform sexual acts on young girls – often getting away unpunished. Eventually, he was caught red-handed and institutionalised for his doings. In 1895, he was admitted to the Waldau Clinic after being caught for a similar crime. That he was disturbed is an understatement. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations and, often, to violent rages.

Strangely enough, upon being committed to the asylum, Wölfli began to draw. Today about fifty of his pencil works, made between 1904 and 1906, are there for us to see. If not for Dr Walter Morgenthaler, who worked at the Waldau Clinic, we would not have known od Wölfli’s art.

His book takes us through the journey of this troubled artist. A person who had never really done any art previously, seemed to possess this prodigious, almost genius-like, propensity for making complex art. In fact, Wölfli’s unbelievable talent made people take “untaught” art seriously and it created the category of “outsider art” in Western art.

Wölfli barely had any materials to work with but his output was enviable. He used a colour pencil till it had nothing in it. This is what Morgenthaler observed:

“Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.”

A work by Wölfli

Wölfli’s images were not only complex but were also aesthetically pleasing. They seemed to echo some unheard poetry. His images also incorporated idiosyncratic musical notations. While these notations seemed to be purely decorative, but it was actually music.

In 1908, Wölfli created a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, containing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations. It was a mix of his own life and fantasy. After his death in 1930, whatever he did was taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Bern. A foundation was also created to preserve his art for future generations.

The thing about Wölfli’s was that he not only inspired visual art but also musicians. Danish composer Per Nørgård, after viewing a Wölfli exhibition in 1979, embarked on a schizoid style lasting for several years; among the works of this time are an opera on the life of Wölfli called ‘The Divine Circus’.

Wölfli seemed to have a strange affinity for musical symbols
Another example of the “music” in Wölfli’s work

The question now is, should we look at Wölfli’s art and recommend it to young people? My answer is simple: Yes. Sometimes beauty lies in the mouth of the beast. He is not an example to follow, but if you could make one drawing like him, you could be proud for a lifetime.

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