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French illustrator Tomi Ungerer has worn many hats, none of them obviously compatible with any of the others. A cartoonist, political satirist, and illustrator of both children’s books and sadomasochistic erotica, he has designed a cat-shaped kindergarten for a German school and condoms for a French safe-sex campaign. This is the kind of unlikely marriage that crops up again and again in the works on display in Tomi Ungerer: All in One, an eclectic retrospective currently on view at The Drawing Center.
Born in 1931 in Alsace, France, Ungerer became something of a personality in his adoptive city of New York, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and painted the bricks of his Greenwich Village house pink. His early children’s books, The Mellops Go Flying, The Three Robbers, and Moon Man among them, were published in the ‘50s and ‘60s to widespread popular acclaim, and he produced iconic advertising campaigns for the New York Times and the Village Voice. But he shocked and alienated the American mainstream when he left his wife and moved in with a consenting “sex slave,” stating that Pauline Réage’s sadomasochistic novel The Story of O changed his life. Shortly thereafter, he scandalized the establishment by publishing Fornicon, a book of drawings depicting humans copulating with machines. His children’s books were pulled from American shelves, and he went on to illustrate a book about prostitutes and dominatrices in a German brothel — in addition to several more children’s books.
Though Ungerer occupies apparently disparate roles, his oeuvre is unified by its simple sophistication. He combines youthful humor with the mature sensibilities of a compassionate adult, approaching the prostitutes in a Hamburg brothel and the villains in a children’s book with the same good-natured equanimity: “they turn out to do a lot of good for society, and you know, why not? You have to give everybody a bit of a chance,” he says of the robbers in The Three Robbers book. The works on display in All in One are delightfully childish but unflinchingly critical, at once aesthetically compelling and intellectually demanding. They are unpretentious but serious, blurring the boundaries between children’s entertainment and adult literature.
Ungerer’s “children’s” books are as bleak as the gloomiest adult novel. They eschew the anodyne didacticism of feel-good classics like Goodnight Moon to take up graver themes: in Fog Island, a pair of children venture onto an island from which no one has returned alive, where the cliffs recall the steep crags in Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of Death and the rocks have human faces; in Otto, the eponymous teddy bear is separated from his German-Jewish owner during WWII. One of the illustrations in the book depicts the war-ravaged toy looking dispirited in a shop window. “I knew I was old when I found myself on display in the window of an antique store,” the accompanying text reads.
Even the classic Moon Man, about the Moon Man’s descent to earth and consequent persecution at the hands of earthly law enforcement, smacks of alienation. Cautiously cheery at moments, Moon Man treats us in the end to a tale of deviance and exile. The sole occupant of the moon, the Moon Man longs to join the human communities on earth that he has witnessed from afar — but once he realizes that his status as a misfit condemns him to the life of an outcast, he returns, alone, to the moon. He stages his escape by waning to the point of near non-existence and slipping through the bars of his prison.
Ungerer’s stories and their illustrations are dark, haunting, and strange, and their oneirism is captivating. They have the foreign but familiar quality of dreams: lurking beneath their strangeness is a deeper sense of recognition. “As a child I was fascinated by darkness. I was always scared and thrilled by it. You’re scared and thrilled by darkness as a child because you cannot define things, and I think darkness is closer to fantasy than light,” Ungerer once said. The shadowy drawings in Fog Island and The Three Robbers give expression to this primal fantasy of opacity, to our longing for a pre-theoretical and prelinguistic sensibility.
But if his children’s books are soberingly dark, then his adult books are deliciously childish, populated with magical beings and other charming absurdities. Perhaps the best work on display in All in One is The Party, a satirical picture book about a high-society New York gathering with fictional characters like Mrs. Julia Van Flooze and Major Lewis Rumpstick in attendance. Ungerer brings a child’s lack of artifice to this adult world. He is not taken in by the extravagance of the elite’s trappings, and he boils the New York aristocracy down to their constituent monstrosities. The images from this series are frightening and fascinating, recalling Goya’s prints in their insertion of the repugnant into the everyday. There is a man in a fashionable suit with rats coming out of his eye sockets, an elaborately coiffed woman with a beak, and a couple with no facial features clad in stiff, formal dress. Ever inimical to pretension, the illustrations in The Party are presented in stark black and white, highlighting Ungerer’s distaste for the disingenuous ornamentalism of the elite.
Ungerer’s erotic drawings are as raw and unapologetic as his satire. Most of them are simple, black-and-white affairs with the blurred quality of charcoal sketches. Their lines are soft, and they depict sadomasochistic exchanges with a surprisingly muted tenderness. Ungerer rejects the lurid quality of pornography, opting instead to sketch candid, humane portraits. For him, sexuality is continuous with humanity, and he treats it with the same unabashed openness and uncompromising candor with which he addresses children’s dark fantasies and the upper class’s hypocrisy.
“I think eroticism, cult objects, can have mystical dimensions. The erotic organism does not distinguish itself from the animal organism. The organism is a skylight onto eternity,” he once said. Like his children’s books, Ungerer’s visual erotica hints at something intuitive and primordial. “Woman Object, or Geometry of Eroticism,” a drawing that overlays several permutations on the movements of the reclining female body onto a central figure, is a testament to Ungerer’s eye for the animal momentum intrinsic to the human form. The drawing distills frantic sexual motion into a static image, and the woman at its center is a locus of visual tension, gesturing at an explosion of possible motions.
Ungerer’s diverse talents are united in this drawing, which looks beyond the surface to seek out hidden possibilities — and which looks beyond the prostitute’s prescribed function to seek out an alternate role for her. In All in One, which re-images the social pecking order, prostitutes and mistresses become art objects while the denizens of New York high society become monsters. Fresh and imaginative, the exhibition presents a welcome affront to our tired proprieties. It is a provocation, but one that is thoughtful, breathtakingly clever, and at times even beautiful
Tomi Ungerer: All in One continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, New York) through March 22.
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