Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the Waldau Clinic, took a particular interest in Wölfli's art and his condition, later publishing Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) in 1921 which first brought Wölfli to the attention of the art world.
Morgenthaler's book detailed the works of a patient who seemed to have no previous interest in art and developed his talents and skills independently after being committed for a debilitating condition. In this respect, Wölfli was an iconoclast and influenced the development and acceptance of outsider art, Art Brut and its champion Jean Dubuffet.
Wölfli produced a huge number of works during his life, often working with the barest of materials and trading smaller works with visitors to the clinic to obtain pencils, paper or other essentials. Morgenthaler closely observed Wölfli's methods, writing in his influential book:
"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."
The images Wölfli produced were complex, intricate and intense. They worked to the very edges of the page with detailed borders. In a manifestation of Wölfli's "horror vacui", every empty space was filled with two small holes. Wölfli called the shapes around these holes his "birds."
His images also incorporated an idiosyncratic musical notation. This notation seemed to start as a purely decorative affair but later developed into real composition which Wölfli would play on a paper trumpet.
In 1908, he set about creating a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, containing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations. This work was a mix of elements of his own life blended with fantastical stories of his adventures from which he transformed himself from a child to 'Knight Adolf' to 'Emperor Adolf' and finally to 'St Adolf II'. Text and illustrations formed the narrative, sometimes combining multiple elements on kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and colour.
Wölfli eventually died in 1930 and his works were taken to the Museum of the Waldau Clinic in Berne. After his death the Adolf Wölfli Foundation was formed to preserve his art for future generations, today its collection is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Berne.
Wölfli's work has inspired many composers. Perhaps most notable the Danish composer Per Nørgård who 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.
On their web site, The Adolph Wölfli Foundation poses the following:
"Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli's music can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances - as Wölfli indicates - waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music. How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well. More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli's concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting."
In 1978, "Adolf Wölfli: Gelesen Und Vertont," the first recording of Wölfli's work ever to be published, was released by the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Bern. Since that time, a number of German musicians have released adaptations of Wölfli's work. A comprehensive list of these artists can be found at The Adolph Wölfli Foundation's music page
In 1994, musician and composer Graeme Revell released an album entitled The Musique Brut Collection. This record was released by the Grey Area record label, a sub-label of UK-based Mute Records, under the parent label EMI UK. This audio compilation was based on the works of Adolf Wölfli and incorporated digital renditions of Wölfli's compositions, with additional sound effects and ambient soundscapes added to the songs, by Revell, based on the artwork surrounding Wölfli's musical notations. The CD release also contains a small booklet containing pictures of Wölfli's artwork, information about his history, and a brief write-up on Revell's process of converting Wölfli's lithographs into songs.
The Musique Brut Collection is broken up into two sections, based on the themes of the artwork that surrounded the compositions. The first section, entitled "The Insect Musicians," contains songs based on the following works:
The second section, entitled "Necropolis, Amphibians & Reptiles," contains songs based on the following works: