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Child's play: Tomi Ungerer

The deliciously dark illustrator who came up alongside Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein made books about erotic frogs that landed him on the blacklist

Taken from the November 2008 Issue of Dazed:

Once, while researching a project, renegade Renaissance man Tomi Ungerer spent some time in a Strasbourg bordello. “There was a customer who came in every couple of months,” he laconically recalls. “He could only have an orgasm if he had a fingernail pulled out – and who would do that but a dominatrix? A psychiatrist is not going to do that. It’s better for him to unload his rage rather than kill a little girl.” It is this uncompromising insight into the dark inner workings of man that has both helped and hindered Ungerer’s long illustrative career, one that has taken him to places far stranger than a European bordello.

Born in Strasbourg, Alsace in 1936, Tomi Ungerer is perhaps best known for his children’s books, many of which are considered classics. Well, in some quarters – although they are long out of print in English, his books have remained popular in Europe and Japan. His relationship with American and English audiences has been somewhat more complicated. Ungerer left Strasbourg for New York in 1956. “I had 60 dollars and some drawings,” he explains. “I came looking for bluegrass music – although I was amazed how few Americans knew about it when I arrived.” He was immediately introduced to the dark side of the American dream. Falling ill on arrival, he was admitted to hospital, where he was put into an oxygen tent. When asked for his bank details, he explained he had nothing but the money he was carrying. He was told to get up from his sickbed and “go back to where you came from”. Fortunately, he ignored their advice and the visionary editor Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row saw his work and commissioned him to draw a children’s book for her – the acclaimed The Mellops Go Flying. His style was marked by great originality of illustrative technique and a use of language that refused to patronise his young readers. “Children like words they don’t understand,” he insists. His deliciously dark subject matter harked back to the tradition of original Nordic fairy tales and works like Hoffmann’s Struwellpeter and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, rather than the anaemic modern offerings peopled by saccharine teddy bears.

In New York, Ungerer was in good company – Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) was already working with Nordstrom, and Shel Silverstein (The Missing Piece) soon joined their circle. Ungerer found himself presented with a never-ending stream of outlets for his prolific talents. “America is a land of opportunity,” he explains, and he largely credits Nordstrom for their unchecked creative flowering. (“We were allowed to do anything!”) Another factor in his meteoric rise was that he arrived in New York during the golden age of magazine illustration. “I did a children’s book called Moon Man, then I went to Holiday magazine and over Christmas they printed it over six pages. I could go anywhere with a story.

“I think the times have changed because of television – before that, everything came through magazines. Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look – all of them are gone now.” Ungerer soon found himself at the forefront of the countercultural revolution that defined the 60s. “It was a time of barricades,” he says. “But I’d rather have a barricaded street than a highway any day.” He began to produce adult books that explored politics and sexuality. Displaying typical mischievousness, he explains one of his adult outings – “As a satire, I did a book of frogs. It shows all the different sexual positions – but with frogs. In America they buy all those books on sex, just like they buy all those books on cooking – it doesn’t make them better cooks.” Such works began to highlight the glaring difference in outlook between the Anglo-Saxon world and Europe. Regarded primarily as a children’s book creator, his adult material was widely recieved with horror in America and England. “Not in France or Germany though,” he explains. “I meet people there who say, ‘Oh my God! When I was 13, I saved my money to buy your erotic book on frogs!’ I must say, on the continent there is much greater freedom. I’m an ambassador for childhood and education at the European Council, and I come out with these books – nobody objects to that.”

At the very epicentre of the 60s scene, Ungerer’s anti-Vietnam posters were widely exhibited, and he also created the poster and promotional artwork for the Monterey Pop Festival that showcased the extraordinary talents of Hendrix and Joplin to the American public at large. Film work also came his way. “I worked with Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger,” he remembers. “With Kubrick I did all the posters and promotional material for Dr Strangelove (1964). He was a fine man – and modest too. A good person. He always had a book and would write down everything you said – the same way I do. Very meticulous. Preminger was a total tyrant. I did material for him for Too Far To Walk. I was in a lot of scenes – but I remained a European loner.”

“They strip-searched me and even opened the soles of my shoes. I wanted to visit China, so I was automatically a communist” – Tomi Ungerer

This time of cultural and personally creative blossoming did, however, have a darker side. In 1960, Ungerer had applied for a visa to visit China. Travelling back from France, he found himself whisked out of Idlewild airport in Queens by the proverbial “men in black”. “It was like a movie,” he chuckles. “They strip-searched me and even opened the soles of my shoes. I wanted to visit China, so I was automatically a communist.” After the publication of his book Fornicon in 1969, the disapproval turned to moral outrage, and his books were blacklisted from libraries all over America. “Fornicon was about mechanical sex – which is not erotic at all,” he says with real exasperation. It was becoming all too apparent that Ungerer’s political satire and adult/child crossover careers were becoming impossible to maintain in the US. The UK followed suit. “I had a very big show in the Louvre,” says Ungerer. “Five hundred pieces, with sculptures and everything. Then the show came to England at the Royal Festival Hall. Two days after the opening, Valerie Wise, a feminist, came with a whole commando troop and they spray-painted the work. Subsequently, about half of the show had to close down.” Ungerer was to learn first-hand the horror of British tabloids, with headlines proclaiming the work “French Filth!” Worse was to follow. “After that, all my interviews were cancelled – no publisher would touch me. Even the publisher I had dropped me. I was just about banned. My Fornicon had already gone through court and is still banned.”

In 1970, Ungerer left the US for a number of reasons. “I had done my time in a wonderful jail,” he says poetically. “‘The time has come,’ said the Walrus, ‘to get out of here.’ Hard drugs had arrived in New York – the whole atmosphere had changed. I always follow my instincts and I didn’t have the outlets in the magazines any more.” The glamour of the Big Apple was definitely wearing off. “I knew Burroughs and Warhol – Bob Dylan was my neighbour – but I didn’t pursue them. I was always a book man. I make books. Most of my friends have been writers – Philip Roth, Saul Bellow – and then other illustrators. I’m not a starfucker. It kind of bothers me.”

An adventure in the Wild West, or rather the Wild North followed – Ungerer and his wife headed to Canada. “The police station was boarded up because they couldn’t control the area any more. You just lived by the gun. I asked a young friend who shot his brother with seven bullets in the stomach, ‘Why did you do it?’ He said, ‘You know man, once a year you gotta shoot it out.’ You can’t judge Canada by that – I just had to land in this one town.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last. “My wife and I decided to have children, and it was just too savage there. So we arrived in Ireland with six suitcases.” And there they have remained for the past three decades. Ungerer has kept busy, becoming very involved in Franco-German friendship, a key issue in his native Alsace, a territory that has been claimed by both sides on numerous occasions over the last centuries. “When I first moved to Ireland in 1975, I still had death letters from French patriots because I was talking about Franco-German friendship. They were saying, ‘Come back and we will mow you down!’” However, such threats did nothing to diminish his belief in the cause. “I have to fight,” says Ungerer. “I was born a fighter and I love it – and it‘s easy for me because I have what they call my talent.” This willingness to fight for what he believes in stems from a childhood partially lived under the Nazis, something that marked him deeply. “My allergy to violence has remained all my life,” he explains. “If I hadn’t lived and suffered through Nazi occupation, I wouldn’t have been so focused in my political work about fascists, injustice, violence and any form of extremism.” But he has lived to see a radical paradigm shift that he has been actively involved in. “Now everything has changed."

“I have to fight. I was born a fighter and I love it – and it‘s easy for me because I have what they call my talent” – Tomi Ungerer

“I put so much energy into the Franco-German friendship and I’m really proud of it. Something like this has never happened in the whole of history – two countries that have been butchering each other for centuries have finally found friendship and collaboration. It is truly remarkable.” His contribution has been rewarded – he has now been honoured with a state-financed museum dedicated entirely to his work. “It is the first time France made an exception, and that the state has financed a museum for a living artist. But I gave a lot – they have about 8000 drawings and every four months they will be able to have another exhibition. I gave them my library and my toy collection – I am really a practicing socialist, in a way. When you have a collection, it belongs to the people. I’m a spoiled brat – how many people have fought all their lives against something and were not rewarded?”

The wheel has turned in the Anglo-Saxon world too for Ungerer – UK publisher Phaidon have bought the English-language rights to his considerable back catalogue, and have started their re-issues with the children’s book The Three Robbers. Focusing on a group of lovable axe-wielding outlaws and their relationship with a young girl, this is a classic Ungerer tale that will begin the inevitable restoration of Tomi Ungerer to the canon of illustrative greats. When asked why he thinks now is the time for his English-language rebirth, he shrugs. “The time has come,” he explains. “I just want to find enough energy. I’m working on about 12 books right now. I’m working on a book about all my practical jokes and all my accidents – because I think they belong to the same category. I’m a bit of a grasshopper – I just take a jump and I have no idea where I’m gonna land."