Tomi Ungerer: an intensely political artist who found his true home in west Cork
The ‘underside of things, the repressed, the overlooked, the sidelined’
Tomi Ungerer in Amherst, Massachussets, in 2011. Photograph: Christopher Capozziello/The New York Times
Tomi Ungerer was a children’s book creator, an illustrator, a writer, a graphic designer, an architect, a satirist, a sculptor and the maker of the most idiosyncratic collages. He was a father and a farmer, a joker and a teacher, a fighter for sexual freedom and a realist. And, with his unstoppable and most demanding self-drive, he was all of these things simultaneously.
Ungerer published more than 140 books, which have been translated into 30 languages. They range from his globally acclaimed children’s stories to illustrated memoirs to controversial volumes of biting social satire and adult themes.
Central to the success of his children’s writing was the fact that Ungerer did not write down to children, he wanted to challenge them, to frighten them, to delight them. And children all over the world continue to adore these darkly brilliant tales. He was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Prize in 1998 and, in 2003, Ungerer was appointed as the first Ambassador for Childhood and Education by the Council of Europe.
Ungerer was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, in November 1931, the youngest of four children. His father died when he was three years old, but it was his mother who contributed most to his deep-seated resolve and determination. She raised Ungerer and his siblings never to look away, always to stand strong and to know the importance of experiencing fear and not letting it destroy you.
The Strasbourg of Ungerer’s childhood was a city convulsed by war and Ungerer recognised the part of him that bridged this French-German divide, describing himself as being without borders.
When the Nazis annexed Strasbourg, he witnessed firsthand his mother standing up to the German soldiers, refusing to relent. And this deeply affected Ungerer. When he was nine, he started drawing cartoons mocking Hitler – drawings which might have put his family in danger had they been found. But Ungerer never shied away from danger when he felt he had a purpose and a duty.
Ungerer also possessed an unshakeable belief in loyalty. His friendships stretched decades and spanned generations (and countries). He was also loyal to places, his bond with Strasbourg never faltering no matter where he lived. And the city loved him back, proudly erecting a museum in honour of their great artist in 2007, the first living artist to have a public museum dedicated to their life and work in France. For his 85th birthday in 2016, 85 artists from all over the world created works in his honour that were exhibited in the museum.
A young Ungerer did not start out wanting to be an illustrator or to write books. He instead harboured early dreams of becoming a mineralogist or geologist; he was connected to the land. But once he started drawing, he never stopped and his future was unavoidable.
Ungerer moved to America in 1955, lured by jazz music and the creative freedom that suggested. He arrived in New York as a gauche 20-something with no plans and just $60 in his pocket. He described the world he found as “a land of specialists and savages”.
But Ungerer’s New York life quickly took off. He was embraced into the avant-garde creative circles and soon started publishing illustrations in high-profile magazines. A turning point came when he connected with the publisher Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom had vision and she crucially believed in Ungerer, nurturing his obvious talent.
The callow youth was soon replaced by literary success. Ungerer produced key children’s books that quickly garnered international acclaim, including The Mellops’ series and The Three Robbers. He was mixing with the artistic elite such as Tom Wolfe, Stanley Kubrick, Philip Glass and collaborating with the likes of Gunter Grass. He was even made the food editor for Playboy and drove around Manhattan in a cream Bentley. But behind the social whirlwind was an impossibly disciplined creative. Ungerer lived to work.
Everything changed in 1967. Ungerer was so incensed by American participation in the Vietnam War that he produced a series of incendiary posters. They were initially a commission for Columbia University, but the university rejected a number due to their provocative content. These posters soon became cult classics. But American society and, more importantly, American politicians were outraged.
Ungerer reacted to this turning tide against him in a typical manner and, in 1971, took himself and his young wife Yvonne to a very remote farm in Nova Scotia. He disappeared into the wilderness at the peak of his fame. But his mark was already made. And Ungerer never stopped writing and creating; he could not, the work drove him. It was of course part of his suberversive spirit that he left after the publication of Fornicon, his most famous work of erotic satire and one that is still banned in England, a fact that Ungerer was always proud of.
In 1973, he published No Kiss for Mother, a very different children’s book about the naughty kitten Piper Paw, and a response to his friend Maurice Sendak’s Kiss for Mother. Tender and provocative at the same time, it was his most autobiographical book, exposing his relationship with his own mother – but in a uniquely Ungerer fashion.
Nova Scotia was never fully home for the Ungerers, so they took another surprising move and upped roots to go to the southwest of Ireland, buying a farm perched high on the cliffs of west Cork. Their new land contained the ruins of three castles and Ungerer somehow found his true home, where the dramatic waves deafeningly crashing against the rocks provided the perfect soundtrack for his furious creativity.
Against the odds, this eccentric Alsatian and his exotic American wife carved an indelible place for themselves in this remote Irish landscape. Local farmers even found themselves collecting discarded dolls to give to the artist living on the cliffs. For Ungerer could always see the interesting in the rejected. He collected obsessively and his studio was a cluttered cabinet of curiosities.
This home at the end of the world, or at least Ireland, also nurtured not only Ungerer’s work but also his family and it was here that his three children, Aria, Pascal and Lukas, were raised, amidst sheep, horses and endless hares.
In October 2018, Ungerer’s contribution to French culture was recognised when he was promoted to Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by the president of France and on behalf of its people. This rare honour places Ungerer in the cohort of such other luminaries as Balzac, Charles Aznavour and Charlie Chaplin.
Ungerer refused to conform and fought many battles, most of them political. He created political posters and satirical cartoons that viciously attacked the violent and depraved parts of modern life. In the 1990s, he campaigned hugely for Aids, giving away thousands of free condoms featuring his drawings.
What linked all of his work, from children’s books to political posters to his cartoons and his mechanised sexual satire, was his interest in representing the “underside of things, the repressed, the overlooked, the sidelined”.
Ungerer died peacefully in his sleep with a book of Nabokov letters beside him. He was working on a new collection of short stories and he has two major exhibitions opening in Paris in March and April. Ungerer’s imagination never slept.