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Top Drawer

By Michael Fensom

Cartoonist, political satirist, sculptor, children’s-book author—there’s no one word for Tomi Ungerer.

Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer

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The June storm brewing over Manhattan made the audience members packed inside the central room at the Society of Illustrators, on 63rd and Lexington, feel even more grateful for the evening ahead. Rows of folding chairs were filled; stragglers wedged themselves into the space remaining in the back of the room, eyes and ears all trained forward to the stage, where Jules Feiffer and Tomi Ungerer were reminiscing.

Both began their careers as illustrators in the 1960s, gaining notoriety for railing in colored ink against segregation and the Vietnam War in the pages of national magazines and newspapers. Yet Ungerer’s quickly became the dominant voice in the conversation, with a barrage of questions being thrown his way by a fervent audience and the evening’s host. Ungerer—80 years old, understandably tired and requesting a glass of wine—had to be escorted off the stage by more than a few helpers after the event went overtime, while fans relentlessly posed more questions and asked for autographs. Some had shopping bags full of books waiting to be signed. It seems the enthusiasm had been building for a long time: This was Ungerer’s first visit in 15 years to New York, the city where he made his reputation as an artist and author, the city he left 38 years ago for a rural life in Nova Scotia and then Ireland.

Though his name is perhaps best known for his children’s books, Ungerer’s career path, stretching over 54 years, is difficult to trace, and even more difficult to categorize. “In the English language,” he told the crowd, “there is a discrepancy, because the word ‘cartoonist’ isn’t representative of what we do. You could call me a drawer, but I’m not a piece of furniture.” Given that he has always naturally lived a life in defiance—of government oppression, social injustice, cultural conventions—it is fitting that Ungerer defies definition.

He refuses to limit himself to any one medium or genre. “If you watched me work you’d go crazy,” Ungerer said, “because here I’m drawing; suddenly, I go off and I write a few lines; and, suddenly, I think ‘Oh, gee, I’d like to do that thing with sculpture.’ It’s madness. It goes in every direction. I’m so lucky that what I cannot express in one way I can do it in another. My wife says that if I didn’t have my talent I might have gone nuts, crazy.”

Millions around the world who aren’t aware of his fine art know Ungerer as a children’s-book author and illustrator. In 1998 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen prize for children’s literature, though for nearly 25 years he hadn’t published any. The vibe of Ungerer’s children’s books is more porcupine than teddy bear, the style of the drawings is more or less the same as that of his adult art, and he eschews saccharine naiveté for unvarnished honesty, which he views as a child’s right. His books were banned in the United States in the 1980s by school librarians who disapproved of the books’ grown-up themes and were also aghast at the existence of the artist’s unrelated erotic works. The children’s books only returned to American bookstores earlier this year with assistance from the London-based publisher Phaidon, which touted Ungerer as “the most famous children’s book author you’ve never heard of.” Ever the rebel, Ungerer wears his former ban like a blue ribbon.

The artist’s volumes of erotic cartoons have drawn acclaim in their own right, albeit from a more mature audience. His 1969 volume Fornicon was self-published and limited to 100 copies. A book collector with an Ungerer fetish might consider unearthing one of the boxed copies to be better than “getting lucky.” Ungerer himself once traded a rare 17th-century illustrated volume depicting animals of the world (including mermaids) at the Strand Book Store, in New York, for an edition of his own erotic tome.

Besides the publication of over 140 books, there are Ungerer’s illustrations. Shortly after moving to New York from his native France in 1956, he began creating advertisements and drawings for publications—Esquire, Harper’s, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and the Village Voice. As he became more involved in campaigns against war and social injustice, Ungerer switched from advertising to advocacy. His instinctive sympathy for those prevented from exercising personal freedom made him an effective critic. His Village Voice ads in the subways bore the same cheerful style as his books but were often accompanied by an Ungerer aphorism such as “Expect the unexpected.” The work had an iceberg-like quality, the deep-seated message submerged beneath a whimsical facade.

“What is history?” Ungerer asks, during an interview with Art & Antiques during his stay in New York. “Pain, hunger, violence, injustice. It’s the same repetition. You see, I’m a very angry person, and anger puts pressure. When I see injustice, all that crap around the world, it makes me want to blow my top. If I didn’t have a valve on my top, I would blow up. And that valve gives out a steam that turns the machinery of creativeness. So my work is a release.”

In truth, beneath Ungerer’s humorous exterior lies a tragic sense of life, born of personal experience. In 1940, before his 10th birthday, the Alsace region of France, where he was born, was annexed by Germany. After the Nazi occupation ended, Alsatians were forbidden from speaking their native language, a dialect of German, by the French.

His experiences at home helped mold his chameleonic identity as an artist. Over his career, he has refused to settle on a preferred medium with which to convey his message or portray his outlook on the world. Communication is an essential aspect of his work, and Ungerer, who speaks French, English and German fluently, views his art, in its many forms, as different languages in which he can communicate.

“In one way I draw what I write, and in another way I write what I draw,” he says. “But sometimes there are some things that come out faster and clearer drawn, and others in writing. And even my conversation to a tree is another language. I talk to all trees. I’m thankful. The other day I caressed my socks and said, ‘Gee, nobody ever thinks of you. They are accusing you of stinking. It’s not your fault, it’s my fault.’”

Depsite his age, Ungerer retains a certain charming boyishness. He supports his lithe frame with a cane and his hair has grayed, but his grin has not faded a bit. His curiosity and evergreen impishness are painted all over his work. Currently he is compiling a book of his greatest practical jokes, he says, a smile spreading across his face.

At times, his tendency to tease has been misunderstood, particularly in America, where satire tends to be taken very seriously. Even more so, Ungerer’s adult drawings have, in the past, created a stir, and alienated some who celebrated his children’s work. Still, Ungerer does not view the work existing on opposite poles, but rather representing alternate aspects of personal growth through art. “My erotic work was an exorcism for my Puritan background,” Ungerer explains. “Still, it’s part, yet again, of the sexual revolution.”

Like many artists, Ungerer is also a collector. “I was born a collector,” he says. “My father was already a collector of clocks and, especially a bibliophile, of books, antiques, everything. So, I was really brought up with that, and with a nose for it, too. I usually buy objects or books which would inspire me.” He specializes in items that he deems “extreme.” His children’s toys, more than 6,000 of them, have been donated to the Musée Tomi Ungerer in Strasbourg, the Alsatian capital—a relief, Ungerer says, because a complex collection can often grow into a burden. “I already have one museum, but I need a second one,” he quips, saying that so many of his collectibles, ranging from R. Crumb comics to a veritable anthology of American pornographic magazines, deserve to be displayed and enjoyed.

Reflecting on a career he calls a “big pudding,” Ungerer—who often refers to his vast yet varied production as “insanity”—wonders if he has a split-personality disorder. Yet it seems even such a clinical categorization wouldn’t suit him precisely enough.

“If you are an artist or a writer—anybody creative—I think it’s destiny that gave you, most likely, this talent,” Ungerer explains. “So, you have to pay it back in a way, by doing things for society and using your talent to fight for what you think is right. My whole philosophy is based on doubt. Don’t hope, cope. Doubt means ‘why not?’ It’s a very opening element, ‘why not?’”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2011

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