Published  15/05/2006

The Terribly Human Tomi Ungerer

The Terribly Human Tomi Ungerer

The Human Comedy: Drawings and Posters by Tomi Ungerer
Boston Public Library
7 February-31 March 2006


Today, Tomi Ungerer is among Europe's best-known commercial artists but has been largely forgotten in America. Remarkably, he made his reputation in the United States in the swinging Sixties, initially as a children's book author-artist and then as a magazine illustrator, advertising artist and political cartoonist. 'Tomi influenced everybody,' said his friend and author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. 'No one, I dare say, no one was as original as Tomi Ungerer.' Not everyone appreciates Ungerer's rude, lewd, skewed sense of humour. The Vietnam War so disgusted him that he deserted America in 1971, first escaping to Canada and finally settling in Ireland, where he still maintains a farm on the south-west coast with his wife, Yvonne.

Having grown up in Alsace under the Nazis during the Second World War, Ungerer as an artist belongs to the long satirical tradition of Hogarth, Goya, Daumier, Wilhelm Busch and George Grosz. 'My anger is essential to my work,' he once explained. 'Humour is a defense mechanism against the evils of society.' Since his return to Europe, Ungerer's art in Babylon (1979), Symptomatics (1982) and other picture albums, has become even more scathing and uncompromising in attacking international consumerism, brutal industrialisation, expanding militarism, rampant unemployment, uncontrollable overpopulation and interminable sexual politics. He is a master at exposing the horror as well as the banality of modern life. 'I love putting taboos through the hoops without sparing hypocrisy,' he insists, 'showing up the ridiculousness of the human condition.' This self-proclaimed 'agent provocateur' is not for the faint of spirit.

The Human Comedy: Drawings and Posters by Tomi Ungerer, an exhibition that opened at the Boston Public Library on 7 February 2006, will do much to restore this unjustly neglected artist to his lost American public. The ebullient exhibition embraces 60 drawings, paintings, collages and posters created primarily during Ungerer's golden age in New York in the 1960s.

'I fell in love with New York', he said. 'People were very kind to me. But everything is very specialised there and my kind of satire was not taken seriously on an artistic level.' It will be now. In pulling together the library's show, the Boston-Strasbourg Sister City Association worked with the Goethe Institute, the French Consular Services in New England and the Mayor's Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events in Boston. The curators, Thèrese Willer of the Tomi Ungerer Center in Strasbourg and Stèphanie Molinard of the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, have judiciously chosen many of the most characteristic examples from the first 30 years of his vast satirical work now housed in Alsace.

Whether drawing, painting or constructing collages, Ungerer is a supreme graphic artist. Colour is less important than the authority of his line. What is most striking is his versatility: ink, pencil, crayon, watercolour, gouache - he mastered them all. He is the true king of all media. 'I enjoy trying different ways of expression to break the monotony,' he explained. 'I hate to repeat myself in a formula.' Ungerer is a multinational, as dexterous with words as with images. Some of the names he invented for his unfortunate subjects (Miss Elmira Catarrh, Miss Dana Hogpuss Hohldeck, Mr Hall Socket and Miss Diana Duct) are worthy of Dickens. He shares with the English novelist contempt for the pretension and cruelty of society. Ungerer graces this work with delicious verbal and visual puns. His photocollages, in particular, are brilliant examples of adroit metamorphosis: a man's shoe from a magazine ad forms the stiff military uniform collar and brim of a general's cap, while a glistening roast turkey becomes a delightful old lady.

Since the time of Horrible: An Account of the Sad Achievements of Progress (1960), Ungerer has been a sly interpreter of Americana. His caricatures of New York socialites and sugar daddies from The Party (1966) are merciless and hilarious. Perhaps, as Professor Susan Bloom of Simmons College, Boston, has suggested, no other artist has found so many ways of demonstrating how threatening a woman's breasts might be. Ungerer was no kinder to the rednecks and quarterbacks, dowagers and beauty queens, and all the others he met on the road while drawing for Esquire, Holiday, Sports Illustrated and other national magazines. His most celebrated advertising campaign was for The Village Voice, but the slogan 'Expect the Unexpected' could apply to most of his posters. For example, a buxom nude woman milks a unicorn in one and a stork delivers a baby to an elderly man in another. As an ardent anti-war activist, Ungerer produced some of the most provocative cartoons on the doomed American involvement in Vietnam. His celebrated comment on the American Civil Rights Movement, Black Power/White Power (1967), a sort of interchangeable, interracial Worm Ouroboros, was plastered on college dorm rooms from Columbia to Berkeley.

The exhibition also includes some remarkable unpublished art. Particularly dynamic was a discarded full-colour poster design for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove of a general pushing a button on his coat as his head explodes. The final drawing used in advertising, the famous black comedy is still witty but far more benign. Appropriately, Ungerer's updated Dance of Death, Rigor Mortis (1983), concludes the exhibit with apocalyptic visions of the modern world gone mad. These aggressive, slashing drawings are worthy of comparison with Goya's Disasters of War. Ungerer remains a thorn in the side of complacency. What a shame he is not now in America to comment on the current political crisis!

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