Tomi Ungerer has always been in the wrong place at the perfect time.
He was born in 1931, in Alsace — territory that has changed hands over centuries of sporadic war between Germany and France. His father died when Ungerer was three, leaving the family penniless. In the broad survey on view at the Drawing Center, one of Ungerer’s earliest surviving sketches, executed with a nine-year-old boy’s obsessive attention to the details of war machinery, depicts the Nazis seizing what was at that time French soil. The occupiers forbade the locals to speak French, forcing them to adopt the German language. In the documentary film Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,
Ungerer relates that he learned the language in four months: “You don’t need Berlitz — a knife on your throat is enough.”
When he was ten, Ungerer made a drawing of Nazi flags; visible is a handwritten admonishment from his teacher that the swastikas are too small. Another drawing, done secretly, foreshadows the chances he would take in later years: Ungerer depicted a young lad thumbing his nose at a Hitler Youth, a gutsy, even foolhardy private protest at a time when Alsatians could be arrested for such trivialities as saying “merci” or “bonjour.”
While in high school, he would sometimes duck into a museum near his bus stop and bask in the presence of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516). Looking back, Ungerer says the painter’s visions of saints and monsters “totally impregnated me,” adding that the sunburst-like depiction of the Resurrection is “a totally psychedelic experience.” After the arrival of Allied troops, people were permitted to speak French openly again, but Ungerer was appalled when the victors began burning books written in German. Such official hypocrisy — “You would never expect the French to come and burn down libraries. No, the Nazis do that” — seems to have shredded the last vestiges of respect for authority in his adolescent soul.
In the film Ungerer states, “I discovered America through Sears Roebuck catalogs, Esquire magazine, and the New Yorker.” Saul Steinberg’s cartoons in that last publication were a revelation to the budding artist: “With a minimal amount of lines, you would be able to bring in a whole philosophical concept. A whole thinking process, which would take maybe two or three pages in a book, can be rendered within a few lines on a white piece of paper.”
Bitten by the Apple — at least as it appeared in that golden age of magazine illustration — the aspiring graphic designer arrived in New York in 1956 with $60 in his pocket and a disordered stack of drawings under his arm. After fruitlessly calling unannounced on numerous art directors, he wound up in despair in the offices of a children’s book editor, who loved his work but told him it was too disquieting for publication. Ungerer soon returned with a story about a family of pigs whose hair-raising adventures were conveyed in breezy pen drawings. He’d learned that he could retain the dark themes of uncertainty his own childhood had taught him as long as he delivered them in a visual style that would entrance children. Creating both story and artwork, Ungerer penned a well-received string of children’s fare, featuring a cast of characters that included bats, rats, vultures, boa constrictors, and various rogues and robbers. (Original drawings from his numerous award-winning publications are on display in the main gallery.) At the same time, he was doing advertising work, including an acclaimed poster campaign featuring funny fish, groping magicians, and claustrophobic elephants accompanied by the resonant tagline, “Expect the Unexpected: The Village Voice.”
Ungerer was enjoying professional success and having a ball — “There’s no other city in the world that I’ve loved as much as New York” — but some aspects of American society infuriated him. In 1967 a coterie of faculty and students at Columbia University commissioned him to make a series of anti–Vietnam War posters, which they rejected as “too virulent.” Ungerer self-published them, and almost half a century later they retain their polemical punch and graphic clarity. One poster features a bomber dropping beribboned gift packages mixed in with its more lethal payload. Another imagines the Statue of Liberty being shoved down the throat of a Vietnamese youth whose bright yellow skin ensures that everyone gets the point. At times Ungerer’s arguments can flatten the social forest with his powerfully designed trees, as when he depicts a black figure and a white figure gnawing at each other’s legs. Labeled Black Power/White Power (1967), the visual diatribe ignores what had been (and continues to be) an unequal battle. Far from comparing apples to oranges, it’s more like apples to sledgehammers.
In the late 1960s, Ungerer began a relationship with a woman who offered herself as a willing sex slave, an arrangement that led to a series of graphic — in every sense of the word — drawings. Cordoned off in the back of the exhibit, leather-clad lasses strike strenuous poses in fairly straightforward life drawings; other, sci-fi-inflected figures manipulate elaborate mechanical phalluses. Part fetish funhouse, part H.R. Giger sadomasochism, the stylish images outraged parents, librarians, and other guardians of youthful sensibilities, and Ungerer’s books were removed from library shelves and soon went out of print.
The artist decamped to a farm in Nova Scotia, and eventually went back to Europe, where his bifurcated passions have found acceptance in the form of a museum devoted to all facets of his life’s work.
Now 83, Ungerer can appreciate better than most the scabrous polemics of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, as well as France’s tradition of take-no-prisoners caricature. After the killings at the Paris-based magazine, a week before the Drawing Center show opened, Ungerer drew Lady Liberty crucified. It’s an image that sums up much of his life: the French ideal of Liberté — manifested in a city that welcomed an unknown artist, nourished his exuberant career, and then spurned him — bloodied by ignorance and hatred. Its graphic bluntness echoes Ungerer’s protest posters of the 1960s and images such as 1994’s Pig Heil! (the title says it all), directed against Europe’s ever-present strain of neo-Nazism.
Perhaps that will be his most lasting achievement — his angriest broadsides will, sadly, never go out of style.