Otto Tschumi (1904–1985) was born in Bern. He came from humble beginnings, and his childhood was an unhappy one. After completing primary school he tried his hand at various professions, working as, amongst others, a heating engineer, an architect, a chemigrapher and a lithographer. For several years he earned a living as a graphic designer. Between 1921 and 1925 he attended courses at the School of Arts and Crafts in Bern, but considered himself self-taught. In 1936 Tschumi and his wife Beatrice Gutekunst, an English dancer, moved to Paris. The couple moved back to Switzerland (to Köniz near Bern) shortly before the German troops invaded France in 1940. In Paris Tschumi maintained contacts with Max Ernst and other Surrealists, as well as Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti. One of Tschumi’s first solo exhibitions came on show in 1937 at the Gallery Jeanne Bucher. 1942 saw the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with illustrations by Otto Tschumi. In 1960 Tschumi represented Switzerland at the XXXth Venice Biennial, together with the painter Varlin and the sculptor Robert Müller. Tschumi is one of Switzerland’s best known Surrealists. His works surprise us by their unusual combination of different artistic features. Austere geometrical lines sit comfortably next to amorphous forms, and Tschumi’s virtuoso handling of a reduced formal language is as impressive as his meticulous depiction of detail. What his works all have in common is both a tendency towards defamiliarization and a playful lightness of expression. As a young artist Tschumi, modelling himself on Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso, developed a cubistic formal language, with the human body – deformed beyond recognition in his drawings and lithographs – being the central theme of these works. The Paris Surrealists inspired Tschumi’s penchant for the fantastic, and his artistic autonomy greatly benefitted from the notion of spiritual independence postulated in the Surrealist manifesto. Yet, he never felt the wish to join the Surrealists. On returning to Switzerland he produced his first self-portraits, and thus used a genre he would fall back on many times in the following years. In doing so, he was not so much interested in the value of recognition but the play with recurring motifs and varying artistic techniques. Also animals figure prominently in Otto Tschumi’s works, as do ships or, rather, wrecks, possibly inspired by his thorough reading of Melville’s Moby Dick.
Text: ART-Nachlassstiftung, 2013