At the opening for the Drawing Center’s “All in One,” Tomi Ungerer’s first U.S. retrospective, swarms of visitors obscured the art on the walls. The crowd bent toward the artist, who was holding court and a glass of red wine, though none was being served. Ungerer, who is eighty-three, was in his element. For him, this retrospective is a kind of homecoming. After more than forty years in exile, his career is finding its rightful place in the New York art world.
The Drawing Center exhibition, curated by Claire Gilman, begins with Ungerer’s earliest doodles as a child growing up in Nazi-occupied Alsace, where under the nationalistic duress of war he first learned to be an outlaw. Delicately subversive, they are inscribed with a mature, swaggering humor that takes a subject as terrifying as Hitler and renders him a fool.
In 1956, Ungerer was lured to New York City at the height of print, when publications offered vast opportunities for creative illustrators. Without contacts or even a high school diploma, Ungerer impressed art directors with his idiosyncratic drawing style and witty candor. He became sought after for advertising and editorial work, and most prominently, his unconventional children’s books, which featured society’s most repulsive characters—robbers, snakes, pigs, beggars—as compassionate protagonists.
While working professionally in these PG-rated circles, he remained a deeply political artist, self-publishing bold posters against the Vietnam War, a book of harsh satire called The Underground Sketchbook, and sadomasochistic erotic drawings. But upon discovering his erotic work, the children’s-book community was scandalized. His books were removed from public libraries and his reputation tarnished. Dejected and unable to find work, he left New York in 1971, moving to Nova Scotia with his wife before finding a permanent home in Cork, Ireland.
This defection cost Ungerer the renown he deserves. It wasn’t until 1998 that he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest achievement for children’s-book authors, and a sign of the recent reappraisal of his career. Recent years have seen reissues of his children’s books in English and a large catalogue of his erotic drawings. In Strasbourg, he has a museum dedicated to his work, and in 2012, his life was the subject of a documentary film.
“All in One” follows this trend, showing that Ungerer has been anything but inactive since leaving New York. The range of subject matter is astounding, spanning the terrors of World War II and the turbulence of the sixties, and reaching into the present, with a last-minute addition of the artist’s response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks: a cartoon of Lady Liberty crucified.
His career represents a bygone era of eccentricity in advertising and the revolutionary potential of children’s books. Observed without the sheen of controversy, his erotic work is full of nuance: Fornicon has a fluorescent-lit quality, and steady black lines imagine men and women equipped with bizarre sex machines, like rickety, salivating superheroes. In contrast, Totempole, also using sadomasichism’s external devices and scenarios, expresses inwardness through the sketchy, hesitant line of specificity. These erotic works are given their own separate gallery, with a disclaimer for parents of young children. It’s hard to avoid, as the gallery’s entrance sits just above a theater screening animated film adaptations of Ungerer’s children’s books. On opening night, giggles erupted up the theater steps; the crowd was mostly adults.
I met Ungerer a few days later at his hotel in Soho, a neighborhood that epitomizes the city’s transformation since the time he ran wild here. His features have been sharpened rather than softened by time, and his blue eyes project lively light. In an art world that has grown to valorize polite professionalism, Ungerer’s irreverent personality has the air of a once-upon-a-time legend. He’s quick to inject dark humor into the most mundane interactions. He begged the waiter for decaffeinated coffee, declaring, “Otherwise I will blow up. But don’t worry, you are invited to my funeral. Look, you’re already all dressed in black for the occasion!” He soon hijacked the interview, beginning with his own line of questioning.
Have you read my piece in the [All in One] catalogue?
I did. I was especially intrigued by your aphorisms, which you end your essay with. Could you tell me a bit about those?
People call me an illustrator, but I have been only occasionally an illustrator. In France or Germany I’m known as a writer and as a drawer. These aphorisms are my specialty. They’re all published in France and Germany and are untranslatable usually, because they’re a play on words. I would call them sayings, because aphorism is pretentious—it means there’s a certain wisdom. And one of my aphorisms is, “How boring is wisdom?”
I think of some of your greatest works as visual aphorisms.
For me, it has to be concise. This is why I reject all cartoons which have something written, where there’s a man, and then it says, Income tax. No! The drawing has to be able to speak without any balloon or anything. It just has to jump out and be clear. And I learned that from Steinberg. Steinberg is not so much an influence for the line. Steinberg was, for me, an intellectual experience—that with a few lines he could put a whole thought.
But to me, Steinberg was an observer. I think of you as more of a provocateur. What role do politics have in your work?
In a way, my whole life has been working and fighting for causes. Goebbels was another enormous influence, because I grew up under Nazi propaganda. Goebbels showed me that if you want to demolish your enemy, you use his own weapons. Which is what I’ve done. I’ve been fighting fascism and violence, but with the same technique, which is just power. I mean, a poster has to hit you. And this is very interesting because in German the word slogan is translated as a “fist-word,” Schlagwort. Schlag means hitting. So it’s a word that hits. It’s the same with visuals, because even if a poster goes by on a bus, it has to stay in your mind.
So do you see your work as always on the offensive?
I don’t calculate. I’m just spontaneous. I do crazy things without thinking. Sometimes I do something with a purpose. I did a children’s book, Making Friends, which is about a black boy coming to a white neighborhood—that was done with a purpose. A lot of my energy went to big campaigns, like for AIDS and cancer. For AIDS, it was so much fun—we gave away something like 500,000 condoms free in the street, and on every condom was a drawing of mine, a silhouette of a naked girl with a butterfly net catching a heart, but the butterfly net was a condom. Can you imagine 500,000 of those being handed out in the streets? This would be unthinkable in America! I must say, I’ve always had my fun, too, you see.
Your fun came up against those American puritanical values. What’s it like to see your erotic works displayed in the Drawing Center exhibition when they were so controversial in the past?
I was ahead of my time. Taschen came out with a huge book of my erotic works and I was delighted to see that, when it came out, there were sometimes more women than men at a signing, which would have been unthinkable in the time.
When you came to New York, it was the heyday of print and your work was widely distributed. Do you think those kinds of opportunities have changed for illustrators in the digital age?
Those days are over. These days, all the advertising money goes into television. And in the olden days, all the money went into the magazines. Even magazines like Colliers or Look published stories, so the illustrators were on hire. The first cartoon I sold to Esquire was full page. I would sell some of my children’s books as a story for the Christmas issue of a magazine. Moon Man came out originally in Holiday magazine—twelve pages for Christmas. It was incredible.
You mentioned your dislike of captions, but you’ve always been a storyteller. How and why do you use language in your children’s books?
Well, this was a big fight in the old days. Still, to this day, the Americans say that you should use a vocabulary that the children already have and understand. And I say, No. Children should be given a challenge with new words. My wife and I read our children stories every night—but way ahead of their age. Why not read The Little House on the Prairie to a four-year-old child? I never had this problem with Ursula Nordstrom at Harper. She was the only one who didn’t give a shit about this. But when The Three Robbers came out, they wanted me to take out the word blunderbuss for the gun. But blunderbuss—isn’t that a beautiful word? My god! Blunderbuss!
So a children’s book should be a challenge?
Exactly. It makes them curious for more words. And I always talk to children and youngsters as if I was talking to an adult. This is what people do in Ireland and in Europe. You don’t do goo-goo, gaga. C’mon! They’re young adults, they understand fast. I had to learn German when the Germans arrived in Strasbourg. After three months, one merci and you’d be arrested. Put the knife at their throat and they’ll learn fast enough! These days, I’m personally responsible for the teaching of the Holocaust in French schools. My book Otto is used, and my memoirs of my childhood under the Nazis.
Obviously France has been the center of the discussion on the power of cartoons today. What’s it like to see the world coming to the defense of cartoonists and their work?
Of course I was devastated. The drawing I did on Charlie Hebdo is in the show. It’s a sad drawing. I don’t feel appalled, because it’s written on the wall. It’s the beginning of the World War III. World War I was in the trenches, World War II was in the air, and now we have the Internet and underground terrorism. And there is no way you can uproot that. What happened in Paris was absolutely to be expected, sooner or later.
There’s been a lot of discussion on the racism in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In your earliest childhood drawings, I see you grappling with the stereotypical imagery of Nazi propaganda—and later, in your drawings for the Underground Sketchbook and The Party, you satirize businessmen in their suits. What role do you think types have in your work, and when do they become stereotypes?
Society is made of types, and I’m an accuser, pointing my finger. An accuser, not a judge, please, because I would have to judge myself before I judge others. But I’m just pointing out all the negative aspects of society. I’m reckless, but when I personally have done satire, I have always shown respect for what people respect.
Your attitude has been clear, but your style has changed drastically over time. What’s it like to see the work of your entire career together in the Drawing Center show?
Well, you have to understand that I’m a bit of a spoiled brat. The last show I had in Germany was in a museum where I had four thousand square meters. I could have a room for every style. But I usually hate shows because the transitions between styles and periods are abrupt. I’ve always been embarrassed. I’m like a butterfly, just going from one thing to another. It’s not part of a plan or something. It’s my freedom. I cannot take myself seriously. So to come to the Drawing Center—this is a rather small show, and this is what makes it extraordinary. Claire was able to get from one style to another, and you don’t feel the change. It’s like, flowing. There’s hardly anybody who’s been able to do that. Claire really put order in my life.
Do you think of yourself primarily as a realist or as a fantasist?
Both. I believe reality illustrates itself by the absurd. But in terms of my philosophy, one of my famous sayings is, “Don’t hope, cope.” I’m totally realistic. I don’t believe in illusions. In the papers, I read between the lines. What really strikes me is the total absurdity of our world. Even this killing is totally absurd. When you have the absurd, you have fantasy, and when you see the absurd in facts, then you have the facts. That’s the key.
Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.