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.