Tomi Ungerer: The Subversive Child

By Fernanda Cohen   Wednesday January 14, 2015

Editor’s Note: Tomorrow night, The Drawing Center opens the first American museum retrospective exhibition of Tomi Ungerer's drawings, All in One, with a reception from 6 to 8 pm. Information.

From children's books, to erotic drawings and political propaganda posters, at 82 the Alsatian/French illustrator Tomi Ungerer is still restless, curious and eternally self-taught, with an insatiable thirst to learn and produce as much as possible as long as his hands and mind allow him.

Tomi grew up in Alsace, where he experienced the Nazi occupation of World War II. He remembers that since he was not a good student, the Nazis encouraged his early artistic talent to become "an artist for the Führer," unsuccessfully trying to brainwash him, with any thoughts of his own being replaced by pro-Germany propaganda. This is the root that explains the rest of his life, the raw reality in his children’s books, the twisted mind behind his erotic work and, more directly, his anti-Vietnam War posters from the 1960s. In a Skype interview he said, "I was a Frenchman with my family, a German in school, and an Alsatian with my friends. I drew my own stuff at home, but whenever I was studying I’d do propaganda, that was the first style I picked up, and no one understood how to manipulate graphic symbols better than the Nazis.


Time passed and, obeying his family (against his will), Tomi went to l’Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg for a year. The experience didn’t make much of an impression, so he decided to develop his own education program. "At first my drawings were terrible, but I have a systematic discipline that allows me to always keep improving. So I started to copy everything I could in order to learn how to draw it, which accumulated by way of knowledge, collecting it to then be able to compare it all and, eventually, use my imagination."

This need to learn and improve, without a goal beyond life itself, shows some of that war anxiety the Nazis left him as a souvenir, which he considers even worse than fear because it never goes away. A good example of this side effect is his children's book "Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear” (1999), about a peculiar teddy bear belonging to a Jewish boy during WWII. The kid is taken away by the Nazis and Otto ends up being blown out of a shelter by an explosion, then it falls into the hands of a soldier whose life Otto saves thanks to a shot he absorbs. Needless to say, these images reflect an unusual tone in the category of his young readers, a twist that made him stand out—over time at least—but at the same time branded him among the more traditionalist critics. 

The renowned author-illustrator Maurice Sendak was a great friend of Tomi’s, and both were helped by Harper & Row’s editor Ursula Nordstrom, who allowed them to break the rather conservative rules in children's books publishing back in the late 1950s.Tomi had arrived in New York in 1956 with $60 in his pocket and a trunk full of drawings; a year and a half later he had already published his first book "The Mellops Go Flying" (1957). Sendak once said his best-known book, "Where the Wild Things Are", could exist, in part, thanks to the talent and spirit that Tomi had brought to children's literature: "... he allowed for children in American to be dealt with like the intelligent creatures that we know they are,” he said.

Tomi fell in love with the United States while reading American magazines at the America House in his hometown. It seemed to be a land of opportunities that would allow him to shine. His favorite artist, even to this day, was none other than Saul Steinberg, the genius of synthesis of line and thought. So he sailed to New York on a freighter, settled down, and at some point my two favorite artists of all times managed to cross paths in Steinberg’s studio.

When I ask him about it on our Skype chat, Tomi looked noticeably uncomfortable, and said something to his daughter Aria, in the background. He doesn’t want to tell me about it "because it's personal," but she insists that he does. "He's the best drawer of the century,” he began. “I went to see him and it didn’t work out because he had a girlfriend at the time who I didn’t like. Since I’ve never been known for keeping my mouth shut, I said so, and he did not like it." I would pay anything to have been there.

The times were quite different, and Tomi had ideas in all sorts of directions, always in search of an identity that would bring together all his different worlds. "Back then one could call art directors and they would welcome you to come and show them your work without a problem. I went into an office and was given a contract and an advance for a book I didn’t even have yet."

Although today Tomi says he’s almost allergic to his early work, as if they were disregarded children that reflect many of his failures, at the end of his first ten years in New York he had edited over 20 books of his own, and had great success as an advertising and editorial illustrator. "A lot of people had trouble understanding what I was doing because I was involved in a bunch of things. Everyone tries to pigeonhole you, like most artists use the same style throughout their lives. With all due respect [to them], but I’d be so bored. With each book I have to try something new." Continued here.


Tomi Ungerer was born in Strasbourg in Alsace in 1931. He has lived and worked in Strasbourg, New York, Canada and Ireland and his work has been widely acclaimed with numerous honors and awards, including Legion d'Honneur France (1990); Order of the Deutsches Bundesverdienstdreuz, Germany (1993); National Prize for Graphic Arts France (1995); Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children's literature (1998); European Prize for Culture (1999); Officer of the Legion d'HonneurFrance (2000); Named Goodwill Ambassador for Childhood and Education of  Council of Europe (2003); Erich Käistner Literary Prize (2004); Awarded an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Karlsruhe (2004). [more]

Tomorrow night, The Drawing Center opens the first American museum retrospective exhibition ofTomi Ungerer's drawings, with a reception from 6 to 8 pm.

Beginning with his childhood images depicting the Nazi invasion of Strasbourg and the city’s subsequent liberation, through his work in New York and Canada, and concluding with Ungerer’s most recent political and satirical campaigns as well as his illustrations for the 2013 children’s book Fog Island, The Drawing Center exhibition will re-introduce this wildly creative individual to the world.
The Drawing Center, 35 Mercer Street, New York, NY.

On Saturday, January 17th, Tomi Ungerer will be in conversation with art director/writer Steven Heller from 3-4:30, followed by a book signing. Information.

On Thursday, February 26th, the recent film Far Out Isn’t Far Enough (Dir. Brad Bernstein,) will be screened at The Drawing Center. Information.

Fernanda Cohen is a multiple award-winning illustrator who splits her time between New York & Buenos Aires. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2004. Some of her high-profile projects ever since include illustrating a bottle for Coca-Cola, a series of murals for American Express, designer T-shirts for The Gap, the cover of the New York Times Magazine and editorial pieces for The New Yorker, Fast Company and Time among many others. She’s a longtime DART contributor and has also been writing an illustration column for Argentine magazine 90+10


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