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    A thing called Ernst

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    The deal is sealed with schnapps. At the beginning of 1949, when Ernst, the middle of seven children in a poor Swiss farming family, was eleven years old, his parents gave him away for one franc a day. Far from home, he has to work from dawn to dusk for another family on the farm until shortly before his 18th birthday and is treated hardly better than a farm horse.

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    His new master leads a tough regime and beats the drunk boy bloody, he never hears a good word from his hard-hearted wife, and the two of them often hardly give him enough to eat.

    The boy, who is particularly talented in mental arithmetic, is only rarely allowed to attend school, and he often has to pay for the few happy moments with other children with severe punishments from his master, who lets him address him as “master”. In his growing desperation, Ernst keeps asking himself why his parents gave him away.

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    The Swiss children who experienced such fates up until the 1960s were called “Verdingbuben” – according to estimates, there were hundreds of thousands. One of them was the father of the Swiss artist Lika Nüssli. In her book Strong Thing (Edition Modern, 232 p., 29 €) she tells his story, based on long conversations with the now 85-year-old.

    Nüssli’s style is largely sketchy, the figures are drawn cartoonishly with a thick felt-tip pen and are therefore easy to recognize. The rough-looking line shows the hardships of farm work and the restlessness with which Ernst is driven through days filled to the brim with the hardest work.

    Inspired by traditional Senntum painting

    In contrast, interspersed landscapes are drawn with fine pen strokes and impressively convey the beauty as well as the ruthlessness of nature that surrounds the boy. For other scenes, Nüssli relies on a fantastic, sometimes surrealistic style that makes some of the main character’s particularly painful experiences appear like scenes from a nightmare.

    The artist often borrows stylistic elements from Senntumsmalerei, a local form of peasant art. This creates easily accessible, at first glance naïve, sequences of images of work in the fields and with the animals.

    Towards the end of the book, the drawings, initially distributed loosely across the generously proportioned pages, culminate in dense, increasingly expressive panorama images, which mostly without words depict the seemingly endless cycle of exploitation, violence, but also the short moments of happiness of the boy with the animals he takes care of communicate, such as the double page shown here.

    The enormous versatility and productivity of Lika Nüssli, who was born in 1973, can currently also be admired in a retrospective at the Cartoonmuseum Basel. In addition to originals from “Starkes Ding”, there are also works from her previous book, “Don’t forget yourself”, a graphic examination of her mother, who suffers from dementia.

    There are also paintings, comic strips, children’s book illustrations, sculptures and other three-dimensional works, drawings on textiles and works of art that were part of performances. Until May 29, you can get to know an artist who has rightly been celebrated in Switzerland for some time, but has yet to be discovered by the general public in Germany.

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    Source: Tagesspiegel

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