I think I would have been the perfect anarchist. We have too much discipline. You know my triangle of life? It’s very important. It took me years to do it. It’s a triangle with variable angles and one is for discipline, one for enthusiasm and one for pragmatism. And if it’s a rubber triangle under the pressure of goodwill, you get a pyramid. But not too much goodwill, because otherwise the rubber is gonna burst like an old condom.
I believe reality illustrates itself by the absurd. But in terms of my philosophy, one of my famous sayings is, “Don’t hope, cope.” I’m totally realistic. I don’t believe in illusions. In the papers, I read between the lines. What really strikes me is the total absurdity of our world. Even this killing is totally absurd. When you have the absurd, you have fantasy, and when you see the absurd in facts, then you have the facts. That’s the key.
Children triumphing over fear, learning for themselves and from (often despised) animals, without false innocence, about the absurdity and ugliness of the world created by adults, rendering us children again, eager to create: Tomi Ungerer’s children’s stories are all of this and more.
Ungerer died yesterday (09/02/2019) at the age of 87. It would be impossible for us to summarise all that he created (the children’s stories, erotic art, political posters, illustration, aphorisms, architecture, sculpture); it is for each to travel through his world, to discover it. In everything, he was above all the satirist, the court jester, a Diogenes, who allows us to see.
For us, he will be one more of our dead who is always welcome.
When you were putting together The Party, did you conceptualize that as a whole? Did you go into it thinking, “I’m going to make this book?”
No, I was in Long Island, in East Hampton, where I had this big villa. I was always well-advised by my Jewish friends. And in Long Island, they had a society magazine called The Hamptons where they relate about a party and all these rich bastards. I did some sabotage work. I’m an agent provocateur, you see. In Long Island, there was this magazine, and I got hold of some of those issues and I saw those fucking things. These people at a party and so-and-so was there and so-and-so was there. So that inspired me and I said, “Fucking bastards.” [Groth laughs.] And in those days, I was married to a woman, Miriam, who died three years ago. A fine woman, really. And she liked partying. But from the moment I divorced her, I never had another party. Never had another party ever. I hardly even went to a party again. I’m a loner, I’m a loner. I never joined a political party. No, I did politick once for Willy Brandt.
Yes, you did.
But that doesn’t mean that I was a Democrat. I was always basically a socialist. But otherwise, I once joined the PEN [International] club for a while. I should have stayed, it was a good organization. But otherwise, I’m like my mother, my mother never joined anything.
Regarding The Party. What outraged you so much about that milieu?
At what? Why were you so angry?
At those people, at their philosophy. I was at their parties. I knew how they behaved, I knew how they thought, the American way and all that stuff. Money, money, money — everything is money.
And their star fucking. If they can have a famous artist or a famous something there, they love that. Oh, I took my revenge on a lot of them. One thing I did a lot of times, when I was in Long Island, I broke into these people’s houses when they were not there and spent the night there. One night I went with my wife and I remember this big mansion. I’d been invited there, and there was a hose in the front of the garden, in front of the main door. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I rang the bell and the light went on and finally, the guy came down. Of course, he didn’t recognize me in the dark and he opened the door and I had his own hose with the water jet directly in his face. [Groth laughs.] And then we scrammed. By the time the police came, everything was gone, the water was gone.
And you did things like that because you were so angry?
Yeah, it was straight out of my anger. I can tell it now. I don’t care anymore. The things I would have gone to jail for, I’m not telling you. [Groth laughs.]
(The Comics Journal #303: The Tomi Ungerer Interview)
You have been making political drawings over the whole sweep of your career, and in fact the very first drawings you made as a child were violent scenes of the destruction you saw around you during the Nazi invasion of France. The first drawings you made in America that were activated by a political concern were satirical, Goya-esque sketches of segregation in the South.
This was the biggest shock for me when I came to America—the irony that the Americans fought the Nazis to get rid of racism and fascism, which I suffered in my own way through all this fucking brainwashing, and then I come to America and my first father-in-law was the sheriff of Amarillo, Texas, a when I went down there I realized that there was still segregation. My god there, you know, there’s just something that doesn’t click here. It was so shocking that I don’t think I ever got over it. Anything that has to do with injustice puts me into such a state… I just do what I can do. But you can’t change the world with a drawings, so anyway. After I left America I published over 140 books, and many of them are very, very hard satire. One of them is called Babylon, about all of the evils of our modern society. So I’ve kept up, at least. But people don’t buy books of satire anymore.
How did your upbringing in Nazi-occupied France influence your approach to satire?
The Nazis woke up the anger in me, but on the other hand I was exposed to the propaganda of the greatest genius ever, which was Dr. Goebbles. The best way to fight your enemies is to fight them with their own weapons. So, in a way, my Vietnam posters used the same kind of shock effect that I was brought up with. It’s really quite ironical that I should say such a thing, you see.
What kind of reception did your political drawings find?
Those were the days of McCarthyism, and you had the United States of American and then you had New York. And New York has a great tradition, because it’s where all the immigrants arrived and it was a mixing pot, so all the people who were rebelling against other parts of the world came there. In a way, I was very welcome and even fêted in New York for my work. I worked regularly for Rampartsmagazine, and I still have all the issues. One day their office was raided by fascists, or rightists, and they tore up all my drawings, so Ramparts gave me my torn-up drawings, which is quite a document.
But I must say that outside of New York I felt very uncomfortable. I had this beard and they would even refuse me drinks and so on—they’d say, “Howdy, stranger, how about you shave your beard off before you ask for a drink.” So I’d pull out a penny with the picture of Lincoln and ask if they’d refuse to serve him too. You had to really watch, though, because you could easily get in trouble in those days. I still have paranoia from those days. Once I was almost kidnapped at an airport, and things got a little more serious after that.
Who tried to kidnap you?
I have no idea. After de Gaulle was the first one to recognize China I could have been one of the first reporters to go to China, so I was in Paris waiting for my visa when I got a Telex saying that if I went I could not expect to be let back into the country. So I flew to Idlewild, now JFK, and after I landed three guys came up, two on my sides and one behind me, and one said, “Tomi, drop you suitcases quietly and follow us.” The guy behind me picked up my suitcases, like in a movie, and the two other guys grabbed me by the arms and dragged me away. They even opened up the soles of my shoes. I never found out who they were! It’s very funny, you never think about looking for identification or anything like this. They were just a bunch of goons. Then after I landed I learned that I had been placed in the black book, and my telephone was tapped. For a while there was a lot of hazing, but that stopped when Kennedy was elected, though I remained in the black book. That’s the reason why every time I come back I’m still nervous.
Then in 1969 you came to a turning point in your work, releasing Fornicon, a collection of erotic drawings of women strapped into automated sex machines that marked the beginning of a decades-long dedication to erotica and S&M drawings. How did that come about?
There were wonderful people who helped bring that book out, like Barney Rosset at Grove Press. My god, he had a lot of guts. For every book he brought out he’d have to fight for it in the courts in every state—it cost a fortune. But it was part of the same revolution as the political works. And recently at a signing for my huge book Erotoscope, which is a collection of all of my erotic drawings, there were more women than men. The feminists won! Now women are free and men are free enough to enjoy these kinds of drawings. There’s must greater sexual freedom now. And I have a very highly moral approach, and my principle is that you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody or as long as it’s by mutual consent.
The reaction to the book was swift and severe. Can you talk about what happened?
Well, I was way ahead of my time, and this is what caused me awful trouble in New York. You have no idea! My children’s books were no longer reviewed in the New York Times children’s books section because the editor said that whoever did Fornicon had no right to do children’s books. They put my children’s books in the adult section! And all of my books became banned in all the libraries in America, including the children’s books. When you’re blacklisted no publisher wants you anymore, since you can’t sell to libraries, you know. Even when I went to Canada, the persecution, or whatever you want to call it, kept on going after I left.
(Art Space Interview 15/01/2015)
When you arrived practically penniless in New York in 1956 you were almost immediately hailed, after the publication of The Mellops Go Flying, as a children’s author. I would have thought somebody with your childhood who then took to writing children’s books would be using them to escape into an idyllic world. But your children’s books do not present such a world.
There’s nothing idyllic in my books. A French critic pointed out that I put elements of fear in all my children’s books. That is because I loved fear as a child and the greatest thing in life is to overcome fear. I was scared at night to get the fuel by candlelight. So my brother took me in the moonlight to the cemetery and then after that what did I do? I would go out at night wrapped in a white sheet going ‘woo woo woo’, thinking I would scare people. I’m doing this project now with the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationalewhere I’m still more or less working as adviser: we’re taking over four or five schools and we will ask children in the age-ranges between five and six and eight and nine what they are scared of. And then we’re going to take that and find ways to make fun of that. And that’s a big project now. It’s going to come out as a book.
Martin Amis said a controversial thing on television this spring. He said he would only write a children’s book if he had brain damage.
You know? This is very refreshing. I’m so happy! You could not have told me anything better. Excellent. I do have brain damage. I was born sick. For the first two years of my life I was not allowed to run, and then I did run and I crashed my skull. Surely I have brain damage. Here’s my brain damage. [He finds a photograph of a x-ray of his fractured skull reproduced in Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis.]
Do you see any children’s television now?
Yes, I do and I think it is 90% ghastly. 90% I think absolutely horrifying.
It struck me reading your books to my daughter ? Crictor, Moon Man and Three Robbers – that they’re all about deciding who is the bad guy.
I have always been interested, already as a child in this. I couldn’t find faith. I prayed on my knees, trying to believe in God and I just couldn’t. Yet to this day I pray every day because I have need to be thankful. I don’t know if they go somewhere or not, but I was always fascinated by the Jekyll/Hyde idea and the no-man’s-land between the good and bad. And this is a very important thing, because it’s an area where the bad can learn from the good and the good can learn from the bad – because even the worst have something to give. In the Three Robbers the robbers are bad but in the end they turn out good.
One question from Tabitha, the girl they kidnap, converts them completely. She wants to know what they do with the money they steal. It’s like speed therapy.
Yeah, because they meet a little girl and realise that the treasure they’d stolen is useless. If you realise that something is useless, you get rid of it, like a used collection of toys. But you know I’ve done over 150 books!
But why start off with children’s books? Was it one of the few things that an illustrator could do in the 1960s?
I have to have my fun. That’s all really. And actually, the children’s books I did, the only audience I know of was myself as a child. And as I’ve said, I’ve remained childish and I think this is a kind of discipline in life, to keep some innocence.
But, as I say, they’re not innocent books. They are knowing.
My children’s books are really provoking. In the Anglo-Saxon world, and I would say even in France and Germany, I am the nightmare of pedagogues. I was once invited on a talk show in Switzerland with the head of the Swiss kindergartens. This woman said that as long as she’s in charge she’ll never allow a book of Tomi Ungerer in the Swiss kindergartens.They are too shocking, too hard. But that is not a bad thing. When they were growing up, I took my children to concentration camps. When we came to Alsace, we did a pilgrimage there. I tell every teacher in Alsace to take the children there and what do they say? They say, ‘No, you can’t traumatise them’.
My daughter’s not traumatised by your stories.
That’s the thing. Children love ghost stories. Once I was driving and there was a squashed cat, a run-over cat, in the road. I stopped the car, got the children out and said, ‘You see this cat? This is what’s going to happen to you if you don’t watch out’. And on Easter morning I took my gun and I told the children, ‘Today I’m going to go and shoot the Easter rabbit’.
The other difficulty you seem to have suffered from as a children’s author, perhaps, is your association with erotic art, perhaps most notably your 1986 book Guardian Angels of Hell in which you interviewed and drew dominatrix at a brothel in Hamburg. Why did you spend so much time at the brothel in Hamburg?
I don’t like to travel but I don’t mind going somewhere and staying there. I went there really because I was interested in what is normal. I became part of the family. I would welcome, you know, the clients, sometimes. It’s a closed street where only women without pimps can work, you know? They are free women. And in every brothel they have one or two dominatrixes in the torture chambers. They are never touched by the client, they only apply torture. And they do exactly what the psychiatrist cannot do any more. They are the equivalent of nurses. It’s a vocation. They are wonderful women. There was one guy who came twice a year, he couldn’t do it more than that, but he could have an orgasm. He would come only if you pulled a finger-nail out with a pair of pliers.
And you attracted to this? Why?
Because it’s out of the usual. My first line in my book Far Out is Not far Enough is ‘What is normal?’ It’s better for a guy like this to find a woman instead of killing a little girl in the woods out of frustration. We have a lot of sick people in this world and we have to acknowledge them. Who does the job? The psychiatrist is not going to pull out one of your finger-nails, or even toe-nails, if you ask him. But my show that went everywhere – in Munich 120,000 visitors – when it came to England at the Royal Festival Hall, three days after opening, Valerie Wise, and the feminists came, and wrecked the show with sprays.
A lot of women now, liberated women, see erotica as personally liberating.
Well, absolutely. My first book on this was Fornicon, pictures of S&M machines, and Gloria Steinem and the rest thought it was fine. That’s because it’s a satire. When people take it literally, that’s something else.
Perhaps people thought that your mind was incapable of producing stuff suitable for children.
The erotica is a completely other story. I mean, I always thought the most interesting thing when you have an affair with a woman is to find out what her fantasies are, and once you play out those fantasies, you’re bound to go beyond some borders, it’s a safari. Eroticism is a safari.
And do most women have violent sexual fantasies?
I don’t know if there’s any percentage. But what’s very interesting here is this: I wrote a huge book about erotica and when it came out I signed more books to women than to men.And this would never have happened 30 years before. I’ve been very active in the sexual revolution. To come back to the idea of no-man’s-land between good and evil, I could say, actually, you should be allowed to do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt someone. But sometimes it can go pretty far and you may have to stop. If you meet a woman whose ultimate fantasy is to be strangled, you’re not going to strangle her.
You arrived in New York after the Korean War, just as the civil rights movement was gaining ground and you lived there during Vietnam. What were your politics?
When I arrived I did have leftist leanings but there was a cold war going and with the Korean War I was never against it. You have to be realistic. It was the Chinese and the north that attacked. The one thing that got to me in America was not really international political issues but racism. It was one of the biggest shocks of my life. Nancy, my first wife, a wonderful girl, (we married so we could get a green card), her father was sheriff of Amarillo,Texas and I spent my first Christmas there. I could not believe it – coming from liberal New York and Europe to be suddenly in Texas. He had a cowboy hat and picked us up in Houston in a paddy wagon. We went to the Texas panhandle and (I do not know if this was political or not) there were snow flurries all the way and suddenly there was an elephant in the middle of the highway and I thought how Republican. It turned out an elephant had escaped from the circus. It was a quite an omen. Amarillo was a completely racist city. It was shocking to see people segregated. I did a lot of posters and a lot of drawings on this subject of race. I always say artists should use their talents to fight for what is right. But it depends then on what is right. (Think of all the French intellectuals who went communist in the most ridiculous way.) It was obvious, though, segregation was bad. It hurt people’s pride and it was a lack of respect.
Your art became very fashionable, at least in New York. Why did you suddenly leave?
The thing is I had this big huge villa in Long Island and I was fed up with all this upper class society. I was really an angry man. So I always took vengeance with practical jokes. Everybody was talking about Nova Scotia so I thought I might rent my place and go to Nova Scotia in the summer. And then we went there and the place was waiting for us.
Were you sick of who you were in New York as well?
Well, you know, every rat gets seasick when he knows he’s got to leave the ship.
Did the violence of the locals in Nova Scotia shock you?
I had no idea I would land into this morass of delinquency. It is freedom, when you think about it. When you’re in a place where you’re free to kill, it is the land of freedom. Butthis is one thing you have to say: Rockport is an absolute exception in all of Nova Scotia and all of Canada. So you cannot judge Canada by that one place.
These people were mad and violent.
As I said and explained in my book, it was really due to the religion. They were all sick, especially the Baptists, and the Pentecosts were the absolute worst. Also it was forbidden to drink. Now, can you imagine? A fishing harbour with no pub, no place for the guys to go and have a drink? There was a liquor store but it was government run. The guys would just come from fishing and buy a case of rum. You can buy a Lee-Enfield for $12, and all the ammunition. They would load them into the car, get drunk and attack. Like Jekyll and Hyde. They would drink and once they got drunk, they loaded their guns and they attacked and they set houses on fire. Three fisheries were burnt down. During the six years we were there, one third of the houses built were burnt down. My children know, wherever I go, things happen. Even in New York: once, I decided I show a girlfriend how to get an apartment, I looked in The New York Times I got this apartment with a poltergeist.
Did you have trouble from it?
Well, absolutely. Banging and all that. I had a lot of strange experiences with ghosts and things like that. You see, I do not believe in ghosts but I cannot say I didn’t ever see them.
Weren’t you also shocked at how quickly a small-holder (as you became) also reverted to quite a primitive way of existence?
Oh yeah. Very good question. You see, there’s one thing I never got was how I was able to kill the pigs. Cold blood.
The pigs had names.
Well, sure. And they’re so intelligent, so smart. You know, I’ve always been very respectful of animals. Even in my childhood, when there was an insect drowning in a puddle I would take a blade of grass and save it. For me, killing an animal is completely wrong. I had to get over that. Then it was very complicated for me as well, because I was thinking, you know, I’ve lived through the Nazi time and all that and I said, ‘My God, maybe they just trained the young SS like this. Maybe they killed Jews just the way I’m killing and slaughtering the pig’. For all you know, it is the same thing.
You also accuse meat-eaters of hypocrisy. Being willing to eat the meat but never kill it.
Absolutely. Anybody that eats meat is a killer by proxy. But then, on the other hand, what I discovered is that I’m really proud of being a good butcher. And as I said, the pigs I draw are the pigs I slaughtered in my smoke house. My God, some of those pigs were even fed with cranberries and apples. Can you imagine the taste of them? But what I love is discipline. To lay out a carcass, to dispose a carcass is something you really learn. It’s quite creative and it’s architectural. When you empty out the guts and you look at the chest, it’s gothic. It’s like you’re just looking into a cathedral. So all those things – you see I have too many ideas and I have to cope with it. That’s how to have ideas in life. First you have to develop curiosity and once you have curiosity, you accumulate knowledge and once you have knowledge, you can start comparing. That’s when it starts being creative. You can learn just as much from being a butcher as from growing a vegetable garden or studying cosmology. It’s all part of the cosmos.
And after Nova Scotia you came to Ireland?
We decided to have children. My friend Brian Moore and everybody started talking about Ireland, so we packed our things. We found this place and we came back with six suitcases, with my wife eight months pregnant so that the children would be born here, and that’s that.
Have you enjoyed farming the land?
I live in Absurdia. I was born and bred in Absurdia and live there but I love it here in Ireland. It gave destiny a destination. I am very practical and I taught myself how to look after the land. I had no experience. I learnt carpentry and smithery. Yvonne and I took welding courses. At one point we had about 600 sheep, including lambs, and 18 cows. We are real farmers, it is not amateur stuff. And I learnt a lot from animal behaviour and nature.
Do you mind being 80 this year?
Time is not my thing. As long as I can think and react and do my work that’s fine. I will tell you, I hate any kind of festivities. Christmas is the worst and then birthdays. Sometimes I will even leave the house so I won’t have to celebrate my birthday. The only thing I celebrate is the Jour des Morts, the Day of the Dead. I like to be alone. I light the candle and all my dead are welcome, whether they’re nice to me or not.
Do they come?
It could be my imagination but I do have close contacts.
(Areté Interview 2011)
Tom Ungerer’s website can be found here.