Tomi Ungerer: Provocateur

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When I was a kid I knew Tomi Ungerer’s work very well from The Underground Sketchbook, which I spent a lot of time copying. Thanks to Tomi, I got thrown out of Hebrew School (particularly the picture of the woman shooting a bullet through her breast, which has stuck with me forever, and I can’t tell you how many problems it has caused). But Tomi’s work obviously has influenced many people. It’s crazy that his show at the Drawing Center in New York is the first of its kind in the U.S. He has been such an important figure in American graphic humor, graphic commentary and satire. The following is an edited version of our hour-long conversation before a packed room at the Drawing Center back in January. It was recently published with further edits in WaysAndMeans, the magazine produced for Offset Dublin 2015, edited by Bren Byrne. For a full PDF, go here.

WaysAndMeans cover

Tomi, your work was on the street as billboards and in many magazines during the mid to late ’60s. Your advertising campaigns for the Village Voice and The New York Times were brilliant. So why was it that you were essentially banned and had to leave New York?

These were the McCarthy years and the witch hunt … and actually I might just as well tell the story: General de Gaulle, the president of France, was the first one to recognize Red China [in 1965] as a state, and me being a French citizen, Newsweek was going to send me to China to make a reportage. I went to Paris and I got my visa, but there was a telex from the State Department stating that if I went to China I would never be allowed back to the United States. So I gave up my trip and came back. In those days Kennedy was Idlewild Airport; I went through customs and I was in the middle of the hall and—this was just like a scenario out of a movie—there was one man on my right, one on my left, one in my back, really the caricature of these kind of guys, you know, with …

… Fedoras and black suits.

… the same suit. And one says in my ear, “Drop your suitcases and follow us quietly.” So I dropped the two suitcases, the guy behind grabbed them and immediately the other ones grabbed me on the arm and schlepped me into a car. I don’t know where they took me. I was brought into a white room with a lamp … had to undress, even opened up the soles of my shoes because they were looking for hidden messages or something like that, and then after that my telephone was tapped. That stopped but ever since then I remained in the customs book of unwanted people.

Were you doing work at that time that might be considered subversive?

I think I was already into my Vietnam posters. I’ve never had a great sense of time. For me a second can take the shape of an hour or whatever and as you noticed, I’ve never put a date on any drawings, and I never put a date on any letters, only on cheques or official documents.

When you came to the United States for the first time, you were looking around for work and you managed to do very well.

I came with a big trunk. I joined the army originally and in the army I had this big cantine in French, which is this metal trunk that was full with drawings and books and ideas for books and even manuscripts as well that I came over with.

So, how did you catch on quickly?

It was very fast. The moment I arrived, I came off a Norwegian cargo boat and the next morning I was already out there. My first step was going to a newspaper kiosk and looking at all the papers I would like to work with, and I just wrote down the telephone number and the name of the art director. My office was like … a telephone booth because I lived in a basement, and there was no telephone there.

tomi ungerer drawing from the edge

And who did you go to see first?

I can’t quite remember but everybody was so absolutely incredibly nice. At first they would tell me it was too European, but someone advised me that I can sell this or that in America, and immediately someone like Jerry Snyder at Sports Illustrated said to me, “Oh, you’ve got to see Bill Golden and Columbia,” and others also said, “Oh, go and see Leo Lionni at Fortune” or “Go and see Henry Wolf at Esquire.”

That’s editorial—what about kid’s books?

The children’s books in those days were ghastly. But the biggest outfit was Golden Books. They still exist. I went to the editor there and he said, “Listen, what you are showing me here is not publishable in America. There’s only one person who would publish you, and that is Ursula Nordstrom at Harper.”

Maurice Sendak said that as well.

And that’s when I met Maurice Sendak. We were embarked in the same boat like an Ark of Noah for illustrators. Ursula told me the book I had, The Mellops, was a horrible story with the butcher that locked the brothers up and all this. But she said, “Why don’t you do another story? Why don’t you write another story with the same characters?” And this is what I did, and I was lucky because in a year my first book came out and it … was [honored] at the spring book festival, and the second one was Crictor, about the snake …

Regarading Crictor, I have a story you may not have heard. Fritz Eichenberg, who was an amazing wood engraver and illustrator who loved your work, was on the jury of the [The Herald Tribune] best books when Crictor came before him. The other jurors threw it out because it had a snake as its main character, and he brought it back to the table. He said snakes were as equal as any other characters, and it won as one of the 10 best books that year.

This was my whole point. I’m Alsatian, you know, and I lived with the fact that the French collaborated with the Germans, that we Alsatians never did. With my accent after the war I was literally ostracized as a sale boche, so I know how it feels to be different, and I must say that all the children’s books I did after that were all actually ostracized animals. I did one about the rats, about a chauve-souris, a bat, about a vulture. It was only the other batch of other children’s books later which became really blatantly political or historical. Like Otto is about the Shoah, for example.

Is everything about making a point, about busting the taboo?

I don’t know. Sometimes. I must say in the children’s books I did over the last 20 years, I wanted to make a point. Making Friends is the story of a little black boy that comes in a white neighborhood. I knew I wanted to do that, and with Otto, I realized there’s no book about the Shoah, and about the war. Everybody says, “no, you can’t show this to children.” So I showed the war. I witnessed this, I saw the war, I saw everything. I know what it is to be in the last bridgehead of the Germans across the Rhine and being in the middle of a battle for three months without electricity, without water and all that. And I know what it is to be called to the Gestapo.

You saved many of those drawings from that time that are on view at the Drawing Center.

Very early, my path, which turned into a highway, was straight. I couldn’t stand injustice or persecution or violence.

It raises an issue that I always wanted to ask you. You did a cover for Monocle magazine, titled “Black Power, White Power,” which depicts a white man eating a black leg and a black man eating a white man’s leg. I could never figure out if you were on any side or not.

A lot of my drawings are cryptic and can be interpreted in many ways, but this is, in a way, my version, that the two races are equal and that we will eat each other forever because as always there will be strife. Let’s not have illusions about humanity. We can only survive because of exceptions.

The poster series in which this image was included was done on your own, right?

I decided I would print some at my own cost, sold them at a friend’s poster shops, and they spread like mad. But one must not forget that in those early ’60s, late ’50s and all that, there was the United States and then there was New York, and New York was a fortress of refugees—that anybody who felt that he had to say something or state something or fight for something, they all came to New York. I arrived here as an immigrant, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, and realized only later on that the Statue of Liberty is turning its back on America … everything has its other sides.

You did a picture as an immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings …

It was drawn just before I arrived. A lot of my posters were conceived with anger. But I did the shooting of Charlie Hebdo with an incredible sense of sadness, really. Well, sadness for what happened, but as well for why it happened.

Why do you think it happened?

Well, that’s exactly why we have to atone. Excuse me, there’s no terrorism without roots, and it’s most likely too late now, but I think in France there’s a very strong racist current and this is where it’s ending now, and I do personally think that we are now at the beginning of a third world war. The First World War was in the trenches, you might say the Second World War was in the air and the third one is electronic and underground. It’s out of pure frustrations.

What was your sense when you heard the news about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo?

It made me sick because several papers called me and I couldn’t even formulate. I just couldn’t sort it out.

What about in relation to your own work—I mean, you’ve done some very raw pieces over the years, you’ve taken shots at folly and hypocrisy but have you ever felt physically threatened?

I’ve always been very involved in the French-German reunification and peace, which is a phenomenon that in the whole of world history has never happened. … I’ve dedicated a lot into this project and in those days it was anathema. I got death menace letters from French patriots saying, “You come back, tu reviens en France, on va te descendre, you come back to France, we’ll mow you down.”

So it was as if you were still a child in Alsace.

I always say I’m Alsatian, but with Europe, what does it matter if you are French or German? Europe would not exist if it was not for the France and German reciprocity. I mean one must forgive but not forget, of course.

You have written a lot about the Nazi past …

The book about my Nazi childhood, À La Guerre Comme À La Guerre, is used as a schoolbook in history, and the book Otto is part of it for younger people. It’s part of the school teaching for the Shoah.

So it must pain you what’s going on right now, the idea that Jews may leave France en masse because of the anti-Semitic demonstrations?

We’ve reached a point where nothing can be repaired anymore. We cannot change the climate situation.

Did you believe you could change the climate when you started out?

No, no, no, no. I’ve been active in many things. I mean, I did a book called Amnesty Animal. Now I’m bragging, but I was honorary president of the European, what do you call, ASPCA.

It’s OK, you can brag.

I’ve been involved as much for animals as for nature, as for ecology and all that. My book The Black Book was only about ecology.

You also did a book that touched me greatly when you moved up to Nova Scotia. You talked about the whole process of living with nature, butchering livestock, etc.

This is part of my autobiography book. Especially now I write as much as I draw. I mean really actually my profession is author—I draw what I don’t write and I write what I don’t draw.

You know, I used to spend time looking into your studio on 42nd Street from the Times Building. Can you describe your studio?

I was looking for a studio and ended up on 42nd Street, my favorite neighborhood anyway at the time, but now with all this illumination it’s like Hamburg or Berlin during the war, during the bombings with all the lights and everything. I had a wood-paneled studio with an incredible terrace and mullioned windows, and it used to be the office of Florenz Ziegfeld from the Ziegfeld

Any remnants?

No, but I kept my own follies.

A lot has happened in your life. Has anything changed in terms of your attitudes from when you were young to now that is a profound change in your point of view?

There’s one element I was able to eliminate: hate. And to hate hate because there were times when I was hateful. When I’m angry I lose my marbles, I get out of control; that’s really one of my worst aspects, but on the other hand, don’t forget, something like this is fuel—anger was for me fuel for my work because it’s really great for people like us to be able to express whether in writing or drawing, to just get it out of the system. For me everything was always something to fight for, like for eroticism too, this is another thing I fought for.

Well, that’s a very important point because you were banished from American children’s books. When you were doing those erotic pieces, I understand the children’s book establishment was not too pleased.

An editor at The New York Times responsible for the children’s books refused to review Moon Man. He said the guy who did the Fornicon had no rights to do children’s books. He terrified everybody at The New York Times. And it’s J.C. Suares who was working too in the book section who arranged for the Moon Man to be reviewed in the adult section. And the irony is that an independent jury had chosen it as one of The New York Times 10 best of the year.

Well that editor was very powerful, but also the librarians were very powerful and your career as a children’s book illustrator, at least in the United States, was over.

Yes, but everything I do has always been a sideline. You cannot say just that I’ve been doing children’s books and all that. In America I would be more a children’s book author because my other books have not been published like Babylon … so it’s all relative.

There’s a picture that you did that was in Babylon, and it’s just such a departure from your linear work—but very Daumier.

Well that was the influence. I really acknowledge my influences. And I always said that [for] this book I was influenced by Daumier. And some of the drawings are really that big and when I did Babylon, my point was I want to have a book with all the diseases and evils of society, so I must say there’s everything from drugs, from ecology, the whole range is in there. Religion too.

So, how do you feel all these years later …

I asked for it, I’m an agent provocateur.

But now you have a museum dedicated to you. There’s a wonderful film out about you. So how do you feel about these accolades, the museum, the film?

I’m very insecure. I love accolades and I love to be decorated. Now, in Europe I’m very heavily decorated, but not so much, not because of my books but because of my cultural, political activism. Jack Lang gave me carte blanche for all cultural initiatives between France and Germany. And I didn’t do this alone, I mean all this political thing, you always have a team and people are working.

How did the museum come to be? You donated a lot of work to your hometown.

I think that would be the reason why. I gave the museum something like 13,000 drawings and my library to my hometown. And the museum was financed half by my hometown and half by the French government.

You told me there’s an ongoing program there, that it’s not just a reliquary.

Every four months there’s another exhibition, so it’s not a museum where you just go once. We had Saul Steinberg, R.O. Blechman, William Steig. I’m surrounded by wonderful people. My curator is Thérèse Willer, and she knows every drawing by heart. I wouldn’t know anything and she takes all these initiatives and it’s very handy if somebody wants to organize an exhibition.

You’re working in collage now.

Well, I always did but now I have drawers and drawers of things I’ve cut out for use of collages and even for sculptures too, and a lot of things I already brought with me via Canada from New York, as if I knew some day I would just need that element. And it’s very funny … you’d say, “Why would he travel and carry that stuff? That garbage?” Because I love garbage, I love leftovers. Even in food I think with leftovers you do the best meals. And as I said, I must say that this is really a show of leftovers. You know, and I as a person am a leftover of my leftovers.

Do you have a book that you’re working on right now?

There’s one that’s called Skelly, which comes from skeleton, and this is a book that I would still like to come out with, to familiarize children with death. It’s a guy who’s an undertaker amongst other things, and he’s in the cemetery. He died a while ago and one night he gets out of his tomb because he finds it so boring, so he goes back home, you know, and his wife is asleep and he pinches her nose and says, “It’s me, darling.” And he’s a skeleton, so of course she doesn’t recognize him and all that. And so now he becomes very popular, especially he gives a whole boost to his business. You can imagine an undertaker who’s a skeleton, there’s nothing more reassuring than that.

I had a horrible ending that I can use—it was a terrorist coming in the school ready to blow it up and he goes in there and of course the terrorist couldn’t shoot him because the bullets go right through because he’s a skeleton. But I cannot do that in a children’s book, so I came up with the solution that his wife is very seriously ill and dies, and what does he do? He decides now, his wife is in a big coffin and then she says, “But the coffin is a bit bigger than the other ones.” Because she had a double floor, so he puts himself under his wife so they can be buried together forever.

So, it raises the question about children’s book publishing today. A lot of your children’s books are, as you said, with Crictor, an adult book, or can be read and appreciated by adults. You’re being published by Phaidon in the United States.

This is what changed my life. Phaidon and for the last four, five years they’ve been printing three, four titles a year to catch up with time, which is an incredible thing. So really I’m a spoiled brat. All my life I always say I’d rather deal with a barricade than with a traffic jam, you know, and then it seems for all these causes I fought, like in France and Germany, I’m decorated instead of being in jail. Not bad.