Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tomi Ungerer / A Perpetual Outsider With a Museum of His Own

Tomi Ungerer
Tomi Ungerer

A Perpetual Outsider With a Museum of His Own

Published: October 14, 2009

STRASBOURG, France — It seemed a good moment, what with another round of sex scandals making news, to get a European perspective from Tomi Ungerer.

The Alsatian-born former bad boy of Madison Avenue, best-selling children’s book author, longtime Council of Europe good-will ambassador for children and education, and voluminous illustrator of bondage and other erotica is still going gangbusters after 77 years. “I have to warn you,” he said of his own volubility, when I arrived at his doorstep, “There’s a lot I want to say.” Frankly, I had a hard time getting a word in edgewise.
I had meant to quiz Mr. Ungerer about Silvio Berlusconi and Roman Polanski  and the French culture minister who, after defending Mr. Polanski, had to go on television to explain why, as he had written in an autobiography, he paid to sleep with young men in Asia. (They have a different vetting process for government officials over here.)
To prepare, I stopped into Mr. Ungerer’s museum. Strasbourg has set one up for its native son on a big square. Since he has produced dozens of books and thousands of drawings and collected, because he’s obsessive, curious and not a little perverse, a vast assortment of toys along with back issues of everything from American Funeral Director to the Sears, Roebuck catalog, all of which he is eager to show the world, it was natural (natural if you’re Mr. Ungerer, anyway) that he would have a museum. It has been around for two years, and the other morning several dozen elderly French and German visitors escaped the autumn drizzle to peruse pictures of copulating frogs and naked women trussed up like chickens.
Mr. Ungerer lives a short drive away. He splits his time between here and the remote town in far western Ireland where his wife and children occupy a large farm. Back in the 1960s he was a wild and crazy fixture on the commercial art scene whose libertine liberalism, extraordinary facility, charm and whimsy captured a moment while leaving a few East Hampton hostesses wincing at the mere mention of his name.

Barack Obama as seen by Tomi Ungerer, part of an exhibition in Strasbourg, France.

He arrived in New York in 1956, as he likes to tell the story, with $60, a trunk full of drawings and the remnants of a disease he had caught while serving with the Camel Corps in Algeria. Assignments at Sports Illustrated and Esquire and a contract with Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary children’s book editor at Harper & Brothers, for what became “The Mellops Go Flying,” about a family of Gallic pigs, got him started. The book was a smash, and so was he.
After which he spent about a dozen years — before he moved to remote Canada to get away from it all, then back here to Europe — cornering one after another major ad campaign around the world. He also devised antiwar posters; worked for Otto Preminger and Stanley Kubrick; wrote more children’s books, not a few of which scared the living daylights out of sensitive kids; and drew deft cartoons whose pointed social satire mixed healthy outrage with a very European sort of contempt for what passed as moral behavior in American society.
“Hope is a four-letter word,” he announced the other morning, while rolling a Golden Virginia cigarette between beefy fingers — “workers’ hands,” he wanted to make clear.
“I believe in doubt,” he said.
It helps to remember that he comes from an old family of watchmakers, precise and artisanal. His father, a skilled clock designer, artist and engineer, died when his son was 3, leaving the family in penury but also leaving a library in which his son learned to dream. When Alsace became German overnight, French was banned in school, and Mr. Ungerer discovered what it meant to become rebellious.
“It gave me my first lesson in relativity and cynicism,” he recalled about that time. His second lesson came after the French returned in 1945 and treated him like a traitor for speaking with a German accent.
That’s why, or partly why, he describes Paris as “the most beautiful frame for my ugliest memories,” why he calls himself Alsatian and European but not French, and why, when he got up to answer the telephone at one point, he mixed up languages with his interlocutor like a chef making bouillabaisse.
Did I mention he kept a slave? He did that, too, years ago. He let this information drop the way one might in passing remark on having relatives in Toronto or liking walnuts. The woman had arrived at his doorstep in New York either before or after an incident during which the F.B.I. whisked him away and strip-searched him for being a possible subversive, or at least he thinks it was the F.B.I., he’s apparently not sure now — and neither was I by that point about the chronology or much else, he was talking so fast.
“I asked what she wanted,” he explained. “She said, ‘To be your slave.’ ”
What else was he supposed to do?

Illustration by Tommi Ungerer

His studio, in the attic of the house where his mother lived, includes lots of books, a stash of Barbie dolls, mannequin legs, a plastic gun, a portrait of Beethoven and, sitting under a window like a homemade Duchamp, a disconnected toilet. An old friend, Robert Walter, with whom Mr. Ungerer has worked for years on the museum and other projects, had laid out a spread of wine and croissants. Like doting relatives, they pressed a box of local chocolates on their visitor. A copy of that day’s Libération newspaper, which included a review of a show of Mr. Ungerer’s work in Paris, rested in Mr. Walter’s lap.

Tomi Ungerer, prolific artist and collector of unusual items, at home in Strasbourg, France.

Gangly in cable-knit sweater, with a mop of white hair and yellow teeth, Mr. Ungerer resembled an Irish fisherman on holiday. “With three words,” he said, holding up three fingers, “I can deflate any English aristocrat: ‘Are you Irish?’ ” He loves wordplay, crossword puzzles, dialects, accents, and clearly enjoys acting the outsider: an Alsatian in France, an Irishman in Britain, a European in America, an agnostic with a somewhat unfortunate weakness for Jewish jokes, a rake devoted to children.
“He is too intellectual for the job” was his response to the question I finally managed about Frédéric Mitterrand, the French culture minister in hot water. Mr. Ungerer also defended President Nicolas Sarkozy as a pragmatist who wanted to shake up a stuffy French system, and he calculated that Mr. Polanski had already paid for his crimes, but added that he finds nothing more horrific and unacceptable than pedophilia. A devoted children’s book author, he’s the longtime European good-will ambassador for children for a reason, he emphasized, mentioning volumes he has done lately on the Holocaust and other historical subjects for young readers.
Then he was on to Americans’ fondness for guns, the sheep his sons raise on the family farm, his landlady on West 72nd Street back in the late 1950s who turned out to own a notorious brothel (his nostalgia for America, though oddball, runs deep) and “double thinking,” which he claimed was the medical term for a condition that causes his mind to bounce around like a pinball.
Sadly, I had a train to catch. He feigned disappointment at losing an American audience for his reminiscences about America. Then, as if to himself, he said melancholy is useless. People are melancholy about good memories because they are past, he said, and melancholy about bad memories, which haunt them.
That seemed to make him melancholy. He smiled and opened the door to the gray, rainy afternoon.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 17, 2009
The Abroad column on Thursday, about the author and artist Tomi Ungerer, referred imprecisely to the publisher of his children’s book “The Mellops Go Flying.” When the book was published, in 1957, the company’s name was Harper & Brothers — not Harper & Row, which it became after a merger in 1962. (It is now HarperCollins.)


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