What’s the secret of creativity?
It’s very simple, says Christoph Niemann, who once used a pie diagram to illustrate his answer. In fact, he gives me a silkscreen of it to take home after our visit. In the diagram, a drawing of a scientist explains Mr. Niemann’s formula for success: 87 percent effort, 7.5 percent luck, 0.5 percent “talent and divine inspiration,” and 5 percent “staying off the Internet for 90 minutes consecutively!”
The award-winning artist is famous for his ability to incisively condense weighty issues into a few lines that exemplify his unique and self-deprecating style. His illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, Zeit Magazin, a New York Times visual blog called “Abstract City”, and a number of successful children’s books.
Now the Mercator Foundation is honoring the 43-year-old Berlin resident with an exhibition that opens today.
Mr. Niemann, with his three-day beard, light-brown horn-rimmed glasses and alert gaze, is passionate about the theme of the exhibition. “I’m a politics and news junkie,” he says during our conversation in his studio near Torstraße in the trendy Mitte neighborhood.
“My pictures aren’t just there to illustrate, but also to encourage reflection.” The walls are covered with dozens of examples of how he successfully achieves this goal. One is an image that attracted great attention around the world last year.
It shows two hands playfully putting together the Brooklyn Bridge with a piece of string. When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Berlin last year, German President Joachim Gauck gave him a silkscreen of the image, which Mr. Niemann had belatedly titled “Diplomacy” – and suddenly the illustrator was on everyone’s lips.
He opens a folder that contains many other examples of his relaxed way of putting important issues on paper: a New Yorker cover image on the Fukushima disaster, in which the traditional Japanese cherry blossoms have been replaced with radiation warning symbols; weapons made of U.S. tax forms, to show where the U.S. government’s budget goes; U.S. generals watching explosions on screens and almost declaring World War III when they mistake U.S. Independence Day fireworks for an attack.
Many of Mr. Niemann’s illustrations reveal a deep understanding of U.S. politics, business and society, which the artist, who is from the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, acquired after living in the United States for 11 years. His most important customers are also in the United States, but Mr. Niemann, his wife and their three sons have now made Berlin their home for the last six years.
The change of residence produced the “burst of energy” he had hoped for. “Moving to Berlin,” says Mr. Niemann, “was part of my decision to no longer just react to commissions but also develop my own ideas.” Since then, he has devoted one day a week to his own projects, despite the pressure of deadlines and his many commissions.
Mr. Niemann's formula for success: 87 percent effort, 7.5 percent luck, 0.5 percent 'talent and divine inspiration,' and 5 percent 'staying off the Internet for 90 minutes consecutively!'
In the last six years, the artist has created a number of profound series in which he places familiar images and everyday objects in new contexts, achieving wonderful effects in the process. One is an image of seashells that recently appeared on the cover of Zeit Magazin. In one picture, he depicts a shell in the form of a beachgoer’s swimsuit, and in another as a bathing woman’s sunhat.
“I often just draw what pops into my head, and many things are just random,” says the graphic artist. He pulls out his mobile phone to show us his latest “Sunday Sketches,” which he publishes online once a week: a set of keys that, with a few strokes of the pencil, becomes a bird; a tangled headphone wire that turns into a mosquito; an avocado flying through the air in the form of a baseball. But as relaxed and easy as they look, his illustrations are, of course, hard work. “I do some drawings more than 30 times. As an artistic exercise, I take this very seriously.”
Berlin often serves as a source of inspiration for Mr. Niemann. In a series called “About the Wall,” he treats the history of German partition and reunification with braided paper collages. His cover images for the magazine Weltkunst, where his wife Lisa Zeitz is editor-in-chief, invoke historic paintings related to Berlin. And in the children’s book “Der Kartoffelkönig” or The Potato King, nominated for the German Children’s Literature Award, Mr. Niemann tells the story of how “Old Fritz,” King Frederick II of Prussia, once made the potato appealing to his subjects – with potato prints.
Like many of his other ideas, this one was a coincidence. The New York Times had asked him to do something on the subject of eating. During an outing to Potsdam, outside Berlin, the family happened upon the grave of Frederick II. Mr. Niemann noticed that someone had placed a handful of potatoes on the grave, a reminder of the former king’s dedication to the tuber – and one that will go down in the artist’s body of work as part of the “7.5 percent luck” he includes in his formula for success.
This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. It was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author: email@example.com