Drawing breath

Tomi Ungerer on his new exhibition, Charlie Hebdo, the Brothers Grimm and Far Out Isn't Far Enough.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Tomi Ungerer: All in One at The Drawing Center in New York on Liberté Crucifiée: "I view the shooting at Charlie Hebdo with an incredible sense of sadness."
Tomi Ungerer: All in One at The Drawing Center in New York on Liberté Crucifiée: "I view the shooting at Charlie Hebdo with an incredible sense of sadness." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

During the opening weekend of celebrations for the exhibition Tomi Ungerer: All in One, curated by Claire Gilman at The Drawing Center in New York, I asked the star of Brad Bernstein's Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story about his Barbies that resembled Nicole Kidman's look in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy. He told me that Bagdad Cafe director Percy Adlon's Landleben and Celia Lowenstein's Fascination: Fascism were two other films that profiled him. We talked about his fascination with the Brothers Grimm and how he sees himself in Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. The day before, with Steven Heller, he spoke about his sadness over the tragedy in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices when he heard the news in Ireland.

Liberté Crucifiée, January 9, 2015 - Tomi Ungerer drawing in response to the January 7, 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Liberté Crucifiée, January 9, 2015 - Tomi Ungerer drawing in response to the January 7, 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

If you have never heard of Tomi Ungerer, looked at his children's books, seen his anti-Vietnam War posters or glimpsed his erotica, Bernstein's visually creative documentary is the perfect introduction to a seemingly fearless man, who is being arrested every night in his dreams. He was the most famous children's book author in America, once upon a time, and has clear ideas on what children need. If you want to give them an identity, "children should be traumatised," he once said at a congress of psychiatrists. "Once you have fear, you have to discover courage to survive."

The film chronicles, how Ungerer's beloved father, an astronomer and artist from a family steeped in the clock-making tradition, died when Tomi was four and a half years old, how a boy can learn German in a few months when French was banned and you have "a knife on your throat", how the Nazis weren't the only ones to burn books. He found all his children's stories banished when his books of erotica were discovered and left the US without hope of being published again.

On a stormy Sunday morning,Tomi read Fog Island (Phaidon Press), his latest book for children, to an entranced audience of all ages at The Drawing Center. After the reading, he gave a drawing lesson to everyone and some very valuable advice to me.

Anne-Katrin Titze: How do you feel being a movie star?

Tomi Ungerer: I don't feel anything. I've been terribly spoiled. Even with Percy Adlon, who did Baghdad Cafe. I did more films with him already about my life. It was all television. This time, it was in English. I did with Celia Lowenstein a one hour movie called Fascination: Fascism. So I've been in a lot of movies, all of them for television, not for cinema.

 Tomi Ungerer's Fog Island audience: "There's nothing more beautiful than words."
Tomi Ungerer's Fog Island audience: "There's nothing more beautiful than words." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Is it different to see yourself on an enormous screen?

TU: You know, I don't like to see myself and I have a hard time with my voice. I don't like my voice.

AKT: It's a beautiful voice.

TU: I look like my mother and I always wanted to look like my father. And there's not a language that I don't speak without an accent. I speak German with a French accent, French with a German accent. And, my goodness, in English it changes - I'm totally chameleonistic. Wherever I go, I adapt too - it's ridiculous.

AKT: Many people in the US discovered you through this movie for the first time.

TU: Sure, I was gone for 45 years. I was banned. Bernstein did a marvelous job. Honest and fair. You are in the hands of a moviemaker and he can take you out of context, do anything like that. There was total integrity on his [Brad Bernstein's] part. I see him tonight, they are showing the movie again for two nights.

Tomi Ungerer reading Fog Island: "I read and I write my stories in French, in German and in English."
Tomi Ungerer reading Fog Island: "I read and I write my stories in French, in German and in English." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I interviewed Brad and Rick [co-producer, editor, motion graphics animator Cikowski] when the movie had the US premiere at DOC NYC.

TU: In all films, I have always been treated very well. Like Percy Adlon. I met him in Munich years ago, when I was still in Canada, and I was telling him one of my crazy stories. And this is how he did his first movie, called Landleben, which has been a classic to this day. Wonderful movie.

AKT: Are there favorite films in your life that impacted you?

TU: For me there's two moviemakers which are definitely outstanding and where I can identify myself. It's Buñuel and now David Lynch.

AKT: That makes perfect sense.

TU: Those two I can really identify with. With their humor and their way of looking at the world.

AKT: What's your relationship with the Brothers Grimm?

TU: I was brought up with that. I like the Bechstein Märchen even better than the Grimm Märchen.

Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "A snail is a very funny animal."
Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "A snail is a very funny animal." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I was also thinking about how active the Grimms were politically - how one of them was a diplomat at the Vienna Congress and during the Revolution of 1848…

TU: They were incredible people, those two brothers. You know, they really made the first German dictionary. The Brothers Grimm divided it and totally defined it.

AKT: They reached the letter F. "Frucht", "fruit" was the last word they got to.

TU: I didn't know that!

AKT: The parts in Far Out Isn't Far Enough where you speak about your father also made me think about them. The Grimms lost their beloved father when they were 10 and 11 years old.

TU: I didn't know that - I would love to read a biography, actually.

AKT: I just noticed some parallels in the work of telling children the truth. There are many things that connect you with them.

TU: Oh, I would say so. But then you could say that of so many other writers that influenced me. You know, my life is reading. I didn't go to university - I'm just a reader, of anything, anything. But I'm very fussy on style.

 Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "You realize that the snail lives all his life in its own coffin?"
Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "You realize that the snail lives all his life in its own coffin?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The day before, during a conversation Tomi had with Steven Heller at The Drawing Center, he spoke about his love for leftovers.

Tomi Ungerer [on his collages]: I love garbage! I love leftovers. Even in food. As I said, this really is a show of leftovers. And I, as a person, am the leftover of my leftovers.

AKT: Speaking of leftovers. In the movie you are seen cooking Barbies. Are you still working on that?

TU: Yeah, I still do occasionally. You know, I'm a bit like the Minotaur. I need a few sacrifices every now and then. I must say, my greatest joy and pleasure is when I'm given a Barbie doll and I rip off her clothes and she's naked like a sardine.

Heller: Do you have a specific recipe?

TU: I think in the pan.

In September 2014, Tomi Ungerer was honored with the Commandeur de l’Ordre national du Mérit and he has been named honorary president of the European SPCA. In the spirit of classic fairy tales, before they were rendered "safe" by Disney and friends, Tomi Ungerer's stories, like Crictor, the pet snake, give children a taste for life, "even if it tastes bad".

 Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "He lives in his shell and he dies in his shell."
Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "He lives in his shell and he dies in his shell." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

TU: I've always used animals which other people despised and hated - like sponges, rats, bats, snakes. It's necessary for children to know that everybody has got something that the other one doesn't have, one way or another. The last book on relativity is about a large dwarf who is the same size as a small giant.

The exhibition features a drawing Tomi made on January 9 of this year, called Liberté Crucifiée.

TU: I did this drawing just before I arrived. A lot of my posters were conceived with anger. I view the shooting at Charlie Hebdo with an incredible sense of sadness. Sadness for what happened… I do personally think that we are now at the beginning of a third world war. The First World War was in the trenches, the Second World War was in the air and the third one is electronic and underground. It's pure frustration.

Heller: What was your sense when you heard the news about Charlie Hebdo?

TU: It made me sick. The papers called me and I couldn't even formulate - I just couldn't sort it out.

After Tomi read to us Fog Island, he let us know that every word is important.

Tomi Ungerer: Whenever you read or hear of a word, and you don't know what it means, ask! There's nothing more beautiful than words. Once you grow older you can read them in a dictionary. And you have to learn languages! I read and I write my stories in French, in German and in English. It's wonderful, you can play with words.

Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "And then you have something that looks like four eyes, but it's not four eyes."
Snail - Tomi Ungerer: "And then you have something that looks like four eyes, but it's not four eyes." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Tomi, moving over to the easel, proceeded to draw and explain:

TU: A snail is a very funny animal. You realize that the snail lives all his life in its own coffin? He lives in his shell and he dies in his shell. The other day, a mother came to visit with her daughter who was six years old. In my studio, I have a skeleton. The girl was scared. I told her, "why don't you go and shake hands with my mother?" She went there and shook hands. She had overcome her fear and then I told her, "no, this is a joke, it's not my mother - it's me in a few years." Anyway, what is a snail? It's a spiral. The shell is like this.

And then you have something that looks like four eyes, but it's not four eyes. And then the snail leaves behind a lot of slime. In the olden days, when you had warts, we were told to put a snail on the warts. The slime was supposed to cure. Now it's only used for closing envelopes. We were just talking about the sea - look at the waves, look at the waves. The way I drew them, the waves are snails. And you know what that is? [A young child responds - "paddle"] A paddle of someone who just drowned!

Tomi Ungerer's sea: "The way I drew them, the waves are snails. And you know what that is?"
Tomi Ungerer's sea: "The way I drew them, the waves are snails. And you know what that is?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The parents, first in disbelief, then burst into laughter. The children, of course, from the start, take it in stride, while Tomi continues to use his snails for drawing a mustache, a parrot, a sparrow and a Medusa.

The Drawing Center will screen Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on February 26 at 6:00.

To accompany Tomi Ungerer: All in One, The Drawing Center has produced an extensively illustrated edition in the Drawing Papers series featuring essays by Drawing Center curator Claire Gilman and Thérèse Willer, curator of the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg; a written and pictorial homage to the artist by children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís, first seen in DU magazine; and a rare autobiographical statement about drawing by Ungerer himself. The catalogue also includes a comprehensive chronology.

Tomi Ungerer: All in One, the first US retrospective of his work, is at The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street in New York through March 22, 2015.

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