Wit's End: The Art of Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer was born between worlds, and his picture books show it. Ungerer was raised amid the Sturm und Drang of the Second World War in Alsace, a multilingual border region to which Germany and France have repeatedly laid claim over the centuries. Although the worst aspects of the war largely passed him and his family by, the experience marked Ungerer for life, and he grew up to create stories for children about perennial outsiders of one kind or another. The cast of characters includes loners (Moon Man), eccentrics (the Mellops books, The Beast of Monsieur Racine), “sports” of nature (Adelaide: The Flying Kangaroo), displaced persons (Otto), and two-bit criminals, some of whom turn out to have hearts of gold (The Three Robbers), but most of whom do not (Crictor).

If child protagonists in the conventional, picture-book sense are in short supply in his books, it is doubtless a reflection of the artist’s own childhood imperative to grow up fast, master basic survival skills, and move on. When the globetrotting Mellops family of pigs strikes oil or discovers sunken treasure, the children help out, but worldly Mr. Mellops quite properly takes the lead in organizing and carrying out the required scheme. Ungerer stories like these have the aspect of an initiation rite, serving up tantalizing foretastes of the mysterious “afterlife” of adult experience toward which childhood inexorably tends. For this artist, grown-ups make the best characters because they hold all the cards. They are the responsible ones: the people who, for good or ill, make things happen.

For that same reason, adults have also furnished Ungerer with his preferred targets for satire, an art form he turned to early, in parallel with his career in children’s books. Moving to New York in 1956, he quickly established himself in both realms, with Harper’s Ursula Nordstrom acting as his champion and mentor in the latter domain. Nordstrom, then in the sixteenth year of her historic tenure as director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls, recognized Ungerer’s virtuosity as a draftsman and responded enthusiastically to the iconoclastic spirit that, a few years earlier, had prompted a disgusted headmaster to denounce him as a “willfully perverse and subversive individualist.”

His first picture book, The Mellops Go Flying (1957), immediately put him on the map, garnering high praise from librarian-critics in the year that Robert McCloskey produced his second Caldecott Medal–winner, the idyllic Time of Wonder. Ungerer clearly belonged to a different, less tradition-bound — and ultimately more combative — generation. The artists he hung out with in Greenwich Village in those early days, and regarded as his comrades in arms, included Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and Jules Feiffer.

During the 1960s Ungerer, like Feiffer, courted controversy with his scathing critiques—presented in a series of widely distributed posters — of the Vietnam War. Like Silverstein, he earned a certain notoriety for his excursions into erotic art. Neither of these projects was likely to win him friends on the Newbery–Caldecott committee. Ungerer was far less inclined than Sendak to take time out to attend professional conferences and speak before groups of librarians and teachers in a politic effort to let them come to know him. (In time, Ungerer would decide the United States was not the place for him and take up residence elsewhere: in Canada, Ireland, and his native Strasbourg, France. As an epigraph for his memoir Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis (1998), he quotes from a schoolbook inscription that foretold this future for himself: “I am and am called Hans Ungerer / I shall be the wanderer.”)

Nor did every critic get the joke when, in the double-page spread in Crictor devoted to the numerals two to eight, Ungerer depicted an octopus with seven tentacles—one shy of the usual number. He later claimed that he deliberately made such “mistakes” on occasion in order to give attentive children the pleasure of catching a grownup in an error. In 1971, he upped the ante when in The Beast of Monsieur Racine he drew drops of blood on random figures in the illustrations’ crowd scenes — presumably hoping once again to amuse his adventurous young fans and tweak the noses of their no-nonsense minders. Sadly but not all that surprisingly, the medal-givers that year passed over one of the most brilliantly witty picture books of their time.

Ungerer draws with the effortless grace of an Olympic skater turning perfect figure eights, an excellence he shares with one of his lifelong heroes, New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg. As with Steinberg, Ungerer’s blithely sinuous pen-line has a characteristic life of its own, regardless of the subject it conjures forth. Not only that, but some bacchanalian pleasure principle is also at work, at a subliminal level that can only be sensed: more than many artists, Ungerer leaves the unmistakable impression of having taken joy in the act of making his mark.

During the 1950s, an illustrator at the start of his career typically rendered the art for his first few books in black and white, or at most with the benefit of a very limited allowance of additional color. Crictor is the best of the early Ungerer books produced under these constraints, which saved the publisher money and worry while testing the apprentice artist’s ability to make more from less. Ungerer’s sophisticated brand of deadpan humor was already well in place by then, and it still makes for delightfully good comic fun to page through the book noting each of the disarmingly sly demonstrations by which his boa constrictor protagonist shows off his talents.

By the time Ungerer created The Beast of Monsieur Racine, full color had long since become the option of choice for him, and once again he made the most of the opportunity. His experience as a poster artist clearly served him well as he went about designing the story’s ornate room interiors and outdoor street scenes, which though jammed with incident feel absolutely focused.

The story itself is a culmination of sorts, a synthesis of signature Ungerer elements. Here is Monsieur Racine, the debonair and thoroughly idiosyncratic adult, put on display for young readers to marvel at. Here, too, is the mysterious beast, yet another in the long line of Ungerer outliers. And here is the artist’s ferociously arch and renegade attitude toward everything, the pungent suggestion that nothing in life is ever quite what it seems. The climactic incident — when the beast, by then the talk of all France, is revealed to be a pair of exceedingly clever youngsters in costume — is a liberating moment on at least two counts. For young readers, it is always satisfying, of course, when a venerable graybeard gets snookered by one of their own. Less ordinary, though, is the reaction Ungerer attributes to Monsieur Racine. The fine French gent is not merely unfazed to have thus been fooled in front of all his peers but is also visibly grateful for the experience. As a scientist who looks upon his own cushy life as a quixotic experiment, the droll Monsieur pledges no allegiance except to the truth, and accepts his own story’s surprise ending as he would any other. Nothing, it seems, could in fact ever surprise him, and the same can be said for Tomi Ungerer.

From the March/April 2013 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Different Drummers.
Leonard S. Marcus
Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus is the author of Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon; Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration; and others. He is a founding trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, teaches at NYU and the School of Visual Arts, and is an editor at large at Astra House Books for Young Readers.

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Marilyn Robertson

We chance-encountered the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg and, oh, it was such a great find.

Posted : Feb 12, 2019 04:15



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