Tomi Ungerer shares his views on the Nazis, sex and the Charlie Hebdo killings with Richard Fitzpatrick
HUMOUR has served the illustrator Tomi Ungerer well. He’s endured an uncommon amount of adversity in his life.
Born in 1931, his father died when he was three years old, leaving his family penniless.
His hometown, Strasbourg, was occupied by the Nazis several years later. French, his mother tongue, was outlawed, so he learnt German in four months.
In art class, under the Nazi regime, one of his first tasks was to draw ‘a Jew’. He also witnessed murders.
“My mother was very courageous,” he says.
“We always took everything as a joke. I remember very well there were official posters on every wall, one right across the street, saying you weren’t allowed to have a radio or you would be sentenced to death. And, every night, we listened to London on the radio. We never thought about the consequences. You just live with the situation.
“Afterwards, I happened to be in Colmar, the last bridgehead the Germans had across the Rhine. The battle raged for three months.
“I know exactly what it is to live in a cellar, to be bombed, shelled, to go without water, electricity. I didn’t need television. I saw the whole thing. By the age of 14, I’d seen the war like an infantryman, digging trenches for the Germans.
“It was craic. When things go bad, your only self-defence is to make fun of everything. Sometimes, during bombing, we would laugh hysterically. For the rest of your life, you appreciate much more all the mad things you did.”
Ungerer has been blacklisted and has had his children’s books banned from libraries in the United States, because he was moonlighting as an illustrator for erotic fiction.
He once spent six months observing a dominatrix — “the one who does the job where the psychiatrists stop” — in a bordello in Hamburg.
Puritanical America couldn’t, as one critic put it, reconcile his “kidso” work with his “porno” work. It led to his self-imposed exile from America in 1970.
He now lives in west Cork. At 83, his attitude to sex remains unchanged, open-minded.
“With everything, people should be allowed to do what they want,” he says, “as long as they don’t hurt anyone and it’s by mutual consent. Like in France, if people want to have their shirts open, why shouldn’t they have their shirts open? They’re not hurting anyone.
“Does everything always have to be so extreme? People take themselves so seriously. Whenever you take things too seriously, you’re bound to have more extremes.”
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, Ungerer was widely quoted in international media, and compared the actions of the killers of his fellow satirists to those of the Nazis.
“Every bullet shot at my brothers has hit my conscious self – I feel as if I had been killed by proxy,” he wrote in a blog immediately afterwards.
The magazine has profiled him in the past, and he empathises with how perilous the job of a satirical cartoonist can be.
For his militant stance on civil rights and the Vietnam War, among other crusades, he was targeted by the FBI during his last years in America, and his work in fostering Franco-German relations angered zealots in France.
“I know how it feels to get banned and ostracised. When I arrived in Ireland in 1975, I received death threats from French patriots, because I was engaged in Franco-German friendship, saying, ‘OK, if you come back to France, we’ll mow you down’.
“There is such a thing as freedom of press. There is such a thing as satire. I’ve done over 140 books, written and illustrated, and a lot of them are just plain satire.”
However, while he utterly condemned the Charlie Hebdo killings, Ungerer isn’t comfortable with some material that people find offensive.
“To make fun of Muhammad, that’s not satire, that’s gratuitous. Satire can be close-minded. There’s a limit. I’m very split there. One has to think of the consequences. People’s religion is something that gives them hope,” he says.
Within a year of landing in New York, in 1956, Ungerer had published his first children’s book, The Mellops Go Flying, about a family of fearless pigs and their sausage dog.
Several more outlandish books followed, including classics such as The Three Robbers, Crictor and Moon Man.
The last has been adapted as a film that will screen as part of this week’s Cork French Film Festival.
The books left an indelible mark. Their wicked humour and Ungerer’s contrarian approach — he characterised unloved animals, like rats, snakes and vultures as heroes — turned the genre on its head.
He found a key that unlocked children’s imaginations.
He realised they don’t see the world sentimentally, and attributing redeeming qualities to unpopular animals was a masterstroke.
At the time, children’s books were full of “bunny rabbits and lettuce leaves and blue skies and shit like that,” said Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are.
Sendak was interviewed before he died in 2012 for a documentary on Ungerer entitled Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, the title of which is one of Ungerer’s catchphrases.
Ungerer says the best gift you can give a child is a magnifying glass. Make them curious. Let them find the detail.
If you make it too easy, you’re not allowing them to explore. His influence can be seen, for example, in shows like Sesame Street.
“One of the reasons we came to live in Ireland was people’s attitude to education and children. What we’ve always liked is that children here are being taught as adults and respected for their opinions.
“It’s very important. It’s not a case of people saying to their children, ‘Shut up and say ‘yes’.”
Ungerer was welcomed back into the fold in 1998. He was belatedly awarded a Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize amongst his peers, and Phaidon Press began to reissue his children’s books.
Several more new publications followed.
LOVE OF IRELAND
There is a museum in Strasbourg dedicated to Ungerer’s work, while he is still ensconced in west Cork.
“One of the things we liked about this country was that we didn’t find any arrogance,” Ungerer says.
“People are proud of being Irish, but they’re never pushing it on you. I’ve been fighting arrogance all my life. I was exposed to French arrogance, German arrogance, English arrogance.
“I have found out the three words how to get any snobbish, high-nosed Englishman off his saddle. You know what I ask him ‘Are you Irish’? You wouldn’t believe the stuttering. How can an Englishman explain to a Frenchman that he’s not Irish? It’s one of my little recipes.”
As part of the 26th Cork French Film Festival, organised by the Alliance Francaise de Cork, Tomi Ungerer will present Moon Man at the Gate Cinema at 4.15pm on Wednesday. www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com
Tomi Ungerer appears at creative conference OFFSET, at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, this weekend. See www.iloveoffset.com
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