Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ungerer Artist

by Drew Martin
This past weekend I watched Far Out isn't Far Enough, which is a documentary about Tomi Ungerer, the Alsatian artist who moved to the United States in the late 1950s and became one of the top illustrators of the New York publishing world. His loose but economical style was influenced by Saul Steinberg, and his unconventional approach to children's books opened the doors for the likes of Maurice Sendak.

Ungerer had a disadvantaged start: his father died when he was a toddler, Nazis took over his hometown during WWII, and following the liberation of Europe, the French burned all the Alsatian literature. 

Not particularly deep or intelligent, the 80-something Ungerer is, however, charming with a boyishness that lights up his bright blue eyes.

I am a curious person. I accumulate knowledge through curiosity and the more knowledge you have the more you can compare. And once you have control of those...elements you end up with so many ideas you just don't know where to start anymore. 

He admits it gets worse as he gets older: I am crushed by my ideas

On his main influence he offers:
I would say that in terms of drawing Saul Steinberg is the greatest inspiration. His first book was All in Line. And when I discovered that I realized one thing: with a minimal amount of lines you would be able to bring in a whole philosophical concept, a whole thinking process which would take maybe two or three pages in a book can be rendered within a few lines on a white piece of paper.

Ungerer hails from the area not far from where the American Amish emigrated. When he arrived in New York with his regional look, which included a wide-rimmed black hat and a beard that ran along his jawbone people mistook him as Jewish. In a Texas restaurant he was told he would not be served until he shaved his beard. In protest Ungerer pulled out a penny to show the owner that it is the same kind of beard that Abraham Lincoln had.

Ungerer quickly became known around New York as the Condom Man because once he got stuck in the rain on the way to show his work to a publisher. The unprotected drawings under his arm started to get wet so he darted into a pharmacy and asked for a big cardboard box with which he could create a portfolio case. They gave him a wholesale box for Trojan Condoms. He did not know the brand's connection with prophylactics at the time, but thought Trojan was appropriate because he viewed himself as a Trojan Horse in America.

Ungerer made a break from safe themes that were prevalent at the time in America. He turned snakes and vultures into children's pets, and even made a child-eating ogre into hero. The stories became hits and Ungerer was the most popular children's book author and illustrator of that era. What set Ungerer apart was that he also had a very active career with erotic drawings. When pressed at an American Library Association children's book convention to explain how he could be involved with erotica and children's books, he told the proper crowd that if people did not "f&@k," there would not be any children to read books. This was the beginning of the end for Ungerer in America. All of his books were pulled from libraries across the United States and his career took a nosedive. He moved to Novia Scotia and then finally settled in Ireland.

Fortunately, Ungerer's work has had a comeback. He received 
the highest recognition possible for writers or illustrators of children's books - the Hans Christian Andersen Award. His hometown, Strasbourg, even dedicated a museum to him, the Musée Tomi Ungerer/Centre international de l’illustration.

Click here to watch the trailer for 
Far Out isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.