Austrian, 20th century.
Born 1936, Klosterneuburg, Austria; died 2001, Vienna, Austria.
Born in Klosterneuburg in 1936, August Walla experienced a difficult childhood. Due to the untimely death of his father, he developed an unhealthy attachment to his mother, who would become his primary caretaker. After he threatened suicide at age 16 in 1952, Walla was diagnosed with schizophrenia, hospitalized until 1957, and released to his mother’s care.
In 1970, Walla was admitted to the hospital in Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, and in 1986 became a resident in Dr. Navratil’s Center for Art and Psychotherapy, later named House of Artists (Haus der Kunstler). This visionary workshop broke new ground by allowing patients to live and work with dignity as artists, to express themselves freely, and to completely decorate their house, an activity that encouraged Walla to flourish as a painter and mixed-media artist.
Walla’s wildly expressive painting style is marked by a stylized, often grotesque figuration, and a bombastic use of text that both confronts his viewers with dramatic declarations, and visually activates each composition. He also worked with found objects to craft enigmatic assemblages, an integral part of his oeuvre.
Walla’s work reflects nothing less than an alternate universe in which good and evil avatars clash continually in epic conflict. The creativity and intelligence reflected in the artist’s reimagining of both religious and political symbolism is staggering. Walla appropriated major political symbols, reinventing them to transform his own gender expression from a feminine persona (the swastika) to a masculine one (hammer and sickle). Often misinterpreted as nonsense, his poetic, polyglot wordplay reflects a highly coded system of signification that marks his own construction of identity, and his universal cosmology.
Perhaps one day, scholars of both art and poetry will collaborate to unlock the lessons contained in the legacy of Walla, and of other visionaries who shaped alternate worlds with both text and image. For now, his work is praised mainly for its visual impact. Thanks to Gugging’s longstanding practice of welcoming trained artists to work side by side with residents, Walla and his colleagues have had a measurable impact on contemporary art.
- Jenifer P. Borum
2012, Accidental Genius, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
2006, Inner Worlds Outside, traveling exhibition, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundacíon "La Caixa," Madrid; WhiteChapel Gallery, London; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
2004, Écriture en délire, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne
1992, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Collection abcd, Paris
Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Inner Worlds Outside, exhibition catalogue, Fundacíon "La Caixa," WhiteChapel Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art & Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2006.
Navratil, Leo, Gugging 1946-1986, Brandstätter, Vienna, 1997.
Tuchman, Maurice and Carol S. Eliel, eds., Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1992.
Navratil, Leo, August Walla: Sein Leben & Seine Kunst, Greno, Nördlingen, 1988.
Breymann, Thomas, "August Walla," L'Art brut, fascicle 12, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne, 1976.