How Tomi Ungerer won over the world
The children’s author and eroticist was vilified in the US and received death threats from French fringe groups before moving to Cork and gaining acceptance
Tomi Ungerer: ‘A big compilation of my erotic work came out recently and I was so happy for once to see at a signing there were more women than men. Why should eroticism be only about male ego?’
A still from Moon Man, an animated adaptation of an Ungerer book
We shouldn’t draw too many generalisations. But it is interesting to note how many prominent children’s authors and illustrators resist any pressure to be cuddly. Roald Dahl suffered fools with no gladness. Maurice Sendak could be famously angular. And then there’s the great Tomi Ungerer.
Don’t get me wrong. Ungerer, now 82, and resident in west Cork, is a complete charmer. Ask the Alsatian illustrator a question and he’ll chortle his way around the houses and through the alleyways before ending up somewhere strange and unexpected.
But, despite having charmed generations of kids with eccentric bats, riotous pigs and kindly snakes, Ungerer has never shied away from negotiating trickier corners of the human journey. He once irritated the US with his objections to the Vietnam war, and his determination to divide his time between erotica and children’s fiction. The French establishment was uneasy about his determination to reconcile with Germany.
This is a complex character.
“I am involved with everything,” he says. “That is your duty. You have to take up causes – even erotic causes. A big compilation of my erotic work came out recently and I was so happy for once to see at a signing there were more women than men. That was my reward to see that. Why should eroticism be only about male ego? But I have always been an activist on many fronts. I would rather be caught on a barricade than in a traffic jam.”
Over the next few weeks, Ungerer acolytes and intrigued newbies can savour a two-course feast celebrating the great man’s work. Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, a fine, salty documentary, and Stephan Schesch and Sarah Clara Weber’s Moon Man, an animated adaptation of a 1966 Ungerer book, are both making their way towards cinemas.
The documentary takes us back to a difficult upbringing in much-disputed territory on the Franco-German border. Born in 1931, Ungerer is easily old enough to have clear memories of the chaos that raged around Strasbourg during the second World War.
“Oh, the war brought a lot of change,” he says. “My generation had to make out with whatever we had. I wanted to be a mineralogist. My passion was for that. But if you don’t study and don’t go to college you are free to follow all your passions. Instead of looking at catalogues of furniture, make your own furniture. I brought my anvil when I moved to Ireland. I love working with metal.”
There is much in that answer that helps explain the art of being Tomi Ungerer. He does not feel tied down to any form. He feels any person can tackle any creative endeavour. Fired by that degree of casual ambition, Ungerer travelled to New York in the 1950s and, almost immediately, found his work being accepted by such magazines as the New Yorker and Esquire. A successful series of children’s books followed.
‘New York was great’
Looking back, Ungerer remains conflicted about the US. “New York was great,” he says in his slightly wheezy, cigarette-stained voiced. “It was a castle. You had America and then you had New York. Despite McCarthy, you had more freedom in the press then because you fought harder to get freedom.”
He picks up momentum. “In America everything is exaggerated. I got sick. I went into the hospital. I told them I had no money. I had $60. The woman told me: ‘Get out of here and go back where you came from.’ But it is still a land of opportunity. Within a year and a half, my first book was out there. Everywhere I went I found work. It was a dream story. I bought my first brownstone about four years after my arrival.”
His books about a pig family, the Mellops, won a great many fans. The poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove remains among the best-known of his works. Various awards came his way. But, by the beginning of the 1970s he was beginning to feel the heat from moral avengers. His books were banned from libraries. He was once detained without decent explanation at John F Kennedy airport.
Even now, he seems slightly confused by the vilification. Some of it was to do with his campaigns against the Vietnam war. But his move into a class of trippy erotic art also didn’t help in a country that had not quite escaped its puritanical origins. A book called Fornicon – in which women have sex with eccentric machines – caused particular offense. The odd thing is that, retrospectively, he then found his children’s books being prohibited.
“It was like a law was passed,” he says. “A lot of people buy my first editions. All the American ex-library books that are for sale on the internet have a card in them that says ‘discard’. And if you don’t have the library market in US you just won’t get a publisher.”
Maybe Ungerer was naive. A recent piece on him in the Village Voice suggested that he was just “terminally European”. He had helped define an era in that country’s life – Far Out Isn’t Far Out offers us a barrage of twisty psychedelic images along with the spooky drawings for juveniles – but it soon became clear that he was not welcome in the New World. Part of the problem was this inability to fit into any pigeonhole. Was he a children’s author? Was he an eroticist?
“Children’s work is a sideline,” he laughs. “But then everything is a sideline. I designed buildings. I designed a kindergarten in Germany in the shape of a cat. They enter through the mouth and on the second floor they can slide down the tail.”
At any rate, he then made his way to Nova Scotia with his new wife and began raising a family. He eventually had enough of Nova Scotia’s frontiersman culture and ventured to a small town on Mizen Head. “We arrived with seven suitcases when my wife was pregnant,” he says. “You give destiny a destination.”
Yet he was still not free from the attention of aggrieved maniacs. Ungerer remembers that, even when he reached west Cork, various right-wing French nut-jobs continued to send him death threats. What had he done to annoy that contingent? They were surely not irritated by his artfully erotic drawings.
“It was because I was for the Franco-German friendship,” he says. “My language and speech are known for their vehemence. I said at the time that Alsace was like a toilet: it’s always occupied. They didn’t like that. The Nazis were bad. And then the French came in and it was just as bad. Our Alsatian language – like Irish in Ireland – was not acknowledged by the French. I helped change that.”
His Irish welcome
For all his outsider status, he admits that he felt immediately at home when he arrived in Ireland. One glance at the isolation and yawning beauty of West Cork seemed to win over the whole family.
“If you are an Alsatian you adapt to wherever you go,” he says. “Adapted is adopted. It was great. We felt so welcome in Ireland. We are part of the farming community. The boys are running the farm. We have some 600 sheep. That is no small matter.”
All of which sounds very idyllic. On top of that, Ungerer now has a degree of mainstream respectability. Far Out Is Not Far Enough won prizes at half a dozen international festivals and has just been nominated as best documentary by the Producers Guild of America. His swirling, unsettled visual style – so suitable for the turmoils of the 1960s – has proved enormously influential on the generations that followed. The French even came around and awarded him the gong that matters.
“Now I have the Legion d’honneur and so on. I have been recognised. And that’s good,” he says, before setting up another of his trademark aphorisms.
“I don’t count my blessings. I store them. I store them.”
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story is on limited release from December 13. Moon Man is on limited release from December 27.
This story was edited on December 12th at 14.19.