Art by Adolf Wolfli

Great Stuff #2 - Adolf Wölfli

Adolf Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1864. He died in 1930. During his lifetime he produced an incredibly unique body of work consisting of over 25,000 images. He is one of the most influential 'outsider artists' in history.

'Outsider Art' is a category generally applied to artists who are un-trained, who do not maintain a connection with the art world or art history and who, in some cases, exist on the fringe of society.

It is a comparative term, in relation to 'fine art', which (apparently) is practiced by 'trained' artists working in the context of (Eurocentric, male dominated) art history, safely within the parameters of what is acceptable to mainstream society.

Personally, I don't think labels are all that relevant or helpful. When it comes to art, I think the only question is, 'does it engage, inspire or move you'? 

And as far as mainstream society is concerned, our track record is, shall we say, a little uneven. Not so long ago we all thought the world was flat. Now, only some of us do...

Adolph Wolffli, 'The Dragon Rock Trimbach Railway Foot and Traffic Bridge in China (1909).jpg


Adolf Wölfli, 'The Dragon Rock Trimbach Railway Foot and Traffic Bridge in China (1909)

Adolf Wölfli is considered a quintessential 'outsider artist'. Orphaned by age 10, abused as a child labourer and later imprisoned for dangerous and improper behaviour, he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized in 1895, at the age of 31.  It was there, in the institution, that he took up art. Somewhat obsessively, as it turns out.

Adolph Wolffli

I was probably 18 when I first came into contact with Adolf Wölfli's work. I remember being absolutely floored. The intensity of his vision and the sheer dedication that it would take to produce such vibrant work was totally inspiring. Clearly he was a man capable of intense, one-pointed levels of concentration, with a primal need to manifest his own psychological and spiritual truth in art. Decades later, I continue to be humbled and inspired by his work.


Despite the tragedy and suffering that was woven through his life, his incapacitating mental illness and the somewhat dismissive labelling of his art, Adolf Wölfli is a significant inspiration for many artists, among them the great French painter Jean Dubuffet. A fact that kinda destroys the whole idea of being 'an outsider'.

For a fantastic overview of Adolf Wölfli's life and work I recommend spending some time on this wonderful website:


Note: The images on this page are presented herein under the 'fair use' doctrine, for non-commercial, educational purposes. 

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