Pascal Ungerer: Gloomy landscapes born of artist's upbringing in West Cork 

While he has an artistic pedigree thanks to his famous father, Ungerer has been on a creative roll since graduating from the Crawford and Goldsmiths at a relatively late age
Pascal Ungerer: Gloomy landscapes born of artist's upbringing in West Cork 

Pascal Ungerer recently opened an exhibition in Cork. 

Pascal Ungerer’s exhibition of paintings, Ghosts of Babylon, is now open at the LHQ Gallery at Cork County Library. Ungerer, who lives between Cork city and his native West Cork, began working on the paintings during a residency at Uillinn Art Centre in Skibbereen in 2020, and developed them further over the past year while on a residency at Backwater Studios in Cork.

The paintings are landscapes, though they engage more with the gloom and eeriness of the Irish countryside than with the lyrical beauty favoured by so many Irish artists. “What I’m interested in are marginal places, desolate spaces and hinterlands,” says Ungerer. “We don’t really have the kind of industrial landscapes in West Cork that exist in other countries, but my work is inspired by those dystopic, empty landscapes we do have here, where you have just a few telephone poles, and it’s devoid of people.”

Ungerer has long experience of such landscapes; he grew up in a remote farmhouse outside Goleen, on the Mizen peninsula, the son of the bestselling author, illustrator and satirist Tomi Ungerer, who passed in 2019, and the French man's third wife, Yvonne Wright.

“My parents met in New York in the ’60s,” he says. “They moved to Nova Scotia, in Canada, for a few years, but they wanted to start a family, and they just thought Europe was a better place to be in at the time. They fell in love with Ireland, and settled here.” 

The Ungerers were, he remembers, the only ‘blow-ins’ in the area. “My brother and sister and I were the only foreigners in our school. But we never felt like outsiders, we were really integrated with the local community.” 

Ungerer originally trained as a photographer, and worked as a media freelancer in the UK and Ireland for several years.  “But by 2012, we were right in the middle of the recession, and the work was drying up. I had always wanted to go to art college, and I just felt the timing was right.”

Ungerer was by then in his mid-thirties. “It is a bit strange going to college at that age. That said, there were a lot of other people like me, people who had time on their hands in the recession and decided to go back and study Fine Art. When you’re a bit older, you take it a bit more seriously as well. If I had done it when I was younger, I mightn’t have got as much out of it.” 

Pascal Ungerer with one of the pieces on display at the exhibition at Cork County Library. 
Pascal Ungerer with one of the pieces on display at the exhibition at Cork County Library. 

Graduating in 2016, he won a scholarship to study for an MA at Goldsmiths, University of London, alma mater to Lucien Freud, Mary Quant and Bridget Riley, as well as a wave of Young Brit Artists such as Damien Hirst. 

“Goldsmith’s was very different to the Crawford,” he says. “It’s pretty full-on, and very competitive. There was a great emphasis on being able to defend your work, and articulate your ideas. It was a steep learning curve, but it toughens you up.”

Most of Ungerer’s work at both the Crawford and Goldsmiths was photographic, but he gradually went back to an earlier interest in painting. “It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve focused on working in oils, but I think that’s where it’s going for me now. That time at the Uillinn really galvanised my interest. Painting is a very different medium to photography. I like the connection you have with the canvas, and the spontaneity of that. With photography, you don’t really have that same kind of visceral connection with the work.” 

Ungerer completed his Masters in 2018, and appreciates how beneficial it has been in securing residencies and exhibitions. “It gives you a lot of validation, when you have something like that behind you. Something people can recognise. Art is so subjective in a lot of ways, and sometimes you need these things to validate your work and where you are in your career. I only stayed in London for about a year afterwards, but since I moved back here, it has definitely helped.” 

Ungerer’s exhibition at the LHQ Gallery is just one of several he has in the pipeline. He is grateful to have so much work lined up here, but is also looking beyond Ireland.  “I’m lucky in that I’ve fostered a lot of relationships abroad. I had a couple of exhibitions in the UK earlier on this year, and I’m in discussions with someone at the moment about doing a show in Zurich, in Switzerland.” 

For now, though, he says he's happy on Leeside. "I love Cork as a city, and I’m up and down to Mizen every few weeks. I’ve got another residency at Uillinn this coming winter, which will lead on to an exhibition the following year. So at the moment, Uillinn’s the big one for me, that’s the show I’m working towards in 2023.”

  • Philip Ungerer: Ghosts of Babylon runs at the LHQ Gallery, Cork County Library Headquarters (next to County Hall) until  September 28.

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