An Interview with Tomi Ungerer
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Tomi Ungerer, who turned 80 in November, is an illustrator, writer, designer and ‘archivist of human absurdity’ whose work spans children’s books, posters, social satire, political campaigns, and films. He has won numerous awards in Europe, including the French Legion d’Honneur, but caused controversy in Britain in the early 80s when feminist protestors sprayed graffiti over an exhibition of his erotic art at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Born in Alsace, France, he has also lived in America and Nova Scotia, celebrated in his recently republished book, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough. He emigrated to Ireland in 1976 and raised a family with his third wife, Yvonne. In 2007 a museum in Strasbourg was opened dedicated to his work. Areté met him in his farm in Cork, where he lives with his wife and grown-up children.

The Germans annexed Alsace, when you were nine. What effect did that have on you and on your life and your later art?

My book, Story of a Nazi Childhood explains a lot of this. It is used in France, in schools, and in Germany. At first the Nazi violence was not so obvious because it was actually the violence against those arrested. I really saw the war when the Germans defended the last bridgehead which was called the Colmar Pocket. That’s where I lived, and that’s where I saw the war, just like an infantry man would. What I saw ended up as the pictures I used in my children’s book Otto about the war. I didn’t have to look up anything. Those illustrations were exactly the scenes I saw. I can, to this day, exactly draw a Sherman tank, or a Tiger tank or a T34 or a T32 or whatever. The machine gun in the corner of a picture in Otto, I had one like this. A real weapon for a child was the most fantastic toy ever.

You saw dead bodies?

Oh yes, during the liberation. Blood, I noticed, is hardly ever red, it’s brown. We were in the mine fields, greeting the oncoming tanks from the French First Army. We were running out in the fields and the French tank stopped and gave my sister, as a souvenir, a Camel cigarette. Then we got home and it was a pincer action: the Americans were invading from the other side. They had us at gun point and were already plundering and taking antiques. They even took our two last pots of jams that we had kept for the liberation. That was my first view of Americans. They haven’t changed much, even now, in Afghanistan.

How much anti-Semitism was there during the occupation?

When the Nazis arrived, my first homework was to draw a Jew. And I drew one. Then I came home to my mother and asked, ‘Mama, what is a Jew?’ After that, it was total, systematic brainwashing, every day. The Nazi school system cultivated youth. So I was a Nazi in school, I was an Alsatian in the street with my little pals and I was a Frenchman at home, because my mother was a rabid chauvinist French.

The brainwashing failed in your case?

Well, it still influenced me. I mean, I still have a hard time with modern art. Some of the Picasso stuff is really degenerate! That’s a joke. Don’t print that because people don’t understand me. I say a lot of things because saying it makes it absurd.

There’s a little truth.

There’s a dib, a dab.

I recognise that phrase from your book, Zeralda’s Ogre. Did you know Jewish families?

We didn’t have the same drama. You have to understand, Alsace is very special. At the time of the French Revolution, we were French, and 80% of the French Jews lived in Alsace, so we had a long, long tradition of virtual osmosis with the Jews. Even in literature, some of the best Alsatian authors and poets are Jewish. And then this incredible luck, the Nazis arrived and everywhere else they rounded up the Jews but they didn’t do so in Alsace. They gave the Jews two days to pack their things, get enough food for two days, a blanket, and they were all put in trains and buses and sent to France. And it’s the Vichy people, the fucking French Vichy people, who arrested the Jews and delivered them to the Germans. The Alsatian Jews who died in concentration camps – it was the French who arrested them and delivered them to the Nazis.

How often have you dared say that in public?

Many times. I can do it because I created in Strasbourg the European centre for Yiddish culture. But Israel doesn’t want to hear about Yiddish anymore because it’s the language of misery. But what a beautiful culture! You know, even James Joyce’s Ulysses was translated into Yiddish. Now, if I had been brainwashed by the Nazis – and if I hadn’t seen the war for myself –  then I would not have become the pacifist that I am.

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 Nationale where 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.

Because, I mean, In the Night Garden…, Waybaloo, Thomas the Tank Engine: it’s all very gentle stuff.

Television is either too gentle or too violent. Television is like America, it’s such extremes. It is violent or it is smooshy, booshy. Mooshy. Rabbits. My friend Maurice Sendak did the book A Kiss for Mother and then as an antidote I did No Kiss for Mother. It was about a boy who hates being kissed by his mother.

Actually it is about a cat, but it is a very disturbing idea.

Well, it’s really about a little boy who refuses to be kissed by his mother, he finds it disgusting. And that was me. I couldn’t stand to be kissed by my mother or my sisters.

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.

So a lot of the sado-masochistic imagery in your books such as Fornicon were taken from that bordello period?

No, no. Not from that period. Fornicon was much earlier.I don’t know if you’ve heard the story about New York. I met a girl in New York and she was looking for work and I said ‘What would you like to be?’ and she said ‘I’d like to be your slave’.

Your sex slave?

In every way. It just put her in a state of trance. She looked like an angel, she even ended up being on the cover of Penthouse.

But you weren’t in love with this woman?

No. I only fell in love with my wife. I never fell in love with women before then.

You say you were eventually blacklisted in America.

I got blacklisted much later, not in the McCarthy years, that’s not when I got blacklisted. I got blacklisted under Reagan.

You mean publishers refused to publish you?

No, a notice that went through all American libraries saying that they should get rid of all Tomi Ungerer’s books, even children’s books.

Was this because of the erotica?

Well, and politically too. But actually the axe fell much later, the head fell first and the axe fell later.

You mean you escaped to Canada first? And then the axe on your work came down?

I’m sorry, I’m very pretentious here. I think I have to make a cartoon of this. It’s a cartoon idea.

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.

You had you recently met Yvonne?

One year. I fell in love with her. I sold the Bentley to the mafia, and then we bought a Land Rover. We have two Land rovers. The worst cars I’ve ever had in my life, mechanically, but still they did the job, I guess.

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. But this 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.

You gave an interview 30 years in the New York Times in which you were asked about misogyny. You said the answer was simple, you did not, you don’t like women as a whole. You liked individual women, but hated women in general.

Well, the same thing would apply then to children or everything. Hate is a word I don’t use anymore. I misuse the word because I was able truly to get rid of hate in myself.

Why would you not like women?

I like women. It’s not that. I think one is marked by one’s mother and that’s it.

She behaved strangely to you, didn’t she? She sent you away for a period to board with your uncle after your father died from septicaemia when you were just three.

I’ve been marked by my mother. My father died and I was dumped with uncles and aunts but then I would come home on the weekends. My sisters would pick me up and bring me home and my mother was waiting there with an accumulation, really a cataract, of love. It was the other extreme, and it provoked my disgust and disgust gave relief to my frustrations of being dumped. Then the Nazis arrived and children were not allowed to leave their families. So only when the Nazis arrived did I go to local school and that’s when a new life started.

So you were reunited with your mother but you didn’t like being kissed by her.

No, I never did, to the very end.

Did you not even kiss her on her deathbed? When she was dying?

No. Her hand, yes, only her hand.

That’s sad.

Yes, very sad. It’s a source of great guilt too. But I just couldn’t do it. You’re marked.

Do you suffer from guilt?

Oh yes. This is the torture of my life, my guilt. I always say I would be free and happy man if I didn’t have guilt. Everybody makes mistakes in life and they all come back up on the surface, just like those green algae, you know? They come from nitrate in the water, that’s how they develop. They make yourself undrinkable.

What do you feel guilty about?

Everything. People I have offended. When I talked too much. My short temper. Being reckless. Definitely selfish, egoistic. I would say it haunts me. Totally.

You had a daughter by a previous marriage?

Yes.

Are you in touch with her?

Oh yeah, I’m in touch with her.

She’s not part of the guilt?

Oh yes, certainly. I divorced. I didn’t care for her properly. I just saw her occasionally, you know? I was just back in my work. I was no father to her. Only occasionally. Big guilt. And the guilt, right there, is a case of lack of respect. A child deserves respect and by showing respect by taking care of him and seeing him and all that. I failed.

But you were young, and you had a difficult childhood.

To have a difficult childhood is no excuse. In fact, when you have had a difficult childhood, by rights you should be much more understanding Which I am in a way. There are some things you don’t want to happen again, to your children, to other children. And then I suffer really, very deeply from the Germans call Weltschmerz, which is the pain of the world. I mean, right now I cannot watch the news. I’m too upset about the Libyans and especially children. I mean, when I see children, hungry or displaced, it makes me sick. It haunts me, just the same way. Then too I feel guilty that I haven’t done enough. I cannot be everywhere, you know. I was working a lot for a while with people, you know, youngsters with drug problems. I had to give up, it was too much. Not in this case because of the youngsters, because of the parents.

Let’s get back to what you said about not hating any more. When did you stop hating?

This man you see, over there? [He points to a picture on the wall.] Werner Speis, the famous German art critic, the head of Centre Pompidou, he presented me with some awards in 2008 and he convinced me that I was an artist and all that. I lost the chips (or logs) off my shoulder and I’m starting all new again. And for the first time now I’m happy of my work. I’m really like manic.

The hatred fell away?

I realised that if you live with hate, I mean, you actually suffer more than the hated one because it’s obsessional. I was just able to get rid of it. I may dislike strongly or may feel absolutely disgusted but… When we came here the parish priest gave me a prayer and I have it in my wallet. I have it on me all the time. It is from St Frances of Assisi: ‘Make me an instrument of peace.’

Are you an instrument of peace?

Well, I’m trying. Nobody is. But I try harder, like Avis.

Here you are, you’ve been married to the same woman for 40 years, you’ve got these children who seem to adore you and live near you. Isn’t this the source of the peace and happiness?

It’s great. You know, children grow up sandwiched between two distorting mirrors, but I would say my wife and I always agreed on how to bring up children. You bring up children by the example you give them.

What was your example?

Well, for instance, respecting people. I think I had such a good goal with Jack Lang, the [French] minister of culture. He had adopted my idea of teaching respect in kindergarten. Respect of food, of money, of work, of the old, of nature, the list is enormous. We had that before the war. I remember in my school book there was a text telling children not to go into cornfields and tread on the harvest and it said: ‘Children: do not kill bread on its stalk.’

You talked of how those dominatrixes were like therapists for sick men in Hamburg. Would you have been sick if you didn’t find your art?

Oh, absolutely. I would say it is the best antidote to insanity. I’m blessed because I can put my anger, my revulsion all my inferiority complex, my problems, I put it all in my drawings, that’s an escape route. My work is my escape route.

Is it more important for the drawings to be beautiful or funny?

Well, you know, I think the main thing is satire. I’m basically a satirist. And I would say that even my children’s books are satirical. Nova Scotia was satirical. It was so outrageous it nearly became – through its absurdity – a satire of normalised society. I love the absurd. That is my other refuge. That’s why I’m a great fan of Edward Lear, of Alfred Jarry.

You are also a very beautiful writer, as well as an artist.

You know, I have problems with my English editor because I always like to use words. For instance, I don’t write ‘a bird’. I give the name of the bird. This is very specific and you’ve seen from my book, my passion for natural history. This is an un-ending passion.

There is a simile in Far Out of sand pipers as ‘little busy sewing machines’: ‘on their needle-thin legs they stitch the sandy shore on to the water’s edge.’ I think that is brilliant.

Well, I have been influenced by Gilbert White. These are books that I read all the time, you know, his account of Selborne. This is an un-ending passion. I’m reading a book right now, Oh my God, have you read it? Waterlog [by Roger Deakin]? Oh, it’s the most beautiful book. It’s about swimming through Britain.

How did it feel to have a museum dedicated to you?

It was like being the phantom in my own opera. It was like the end of my career. It was like a blade that came out and was my past. And what do I do? I start again. I do brand new work. I do my big collages. I do much more of my objects [sculptures]. It was like I was starting my career all new again.

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. My father visits me a lot.

Does he? You never knew your father.

Well, I never knew him. He died. But he gave me all his talents, every talent from mechanical, drawing, writing, as a historian, curiosity. My mother too. I really think it’s nice when you can turn the dead into guardian angels.

And it’s always been like this, has it? Your mind has always been bursting full of ideas?

Well, I would call it an infirmity. I mean, I know no rest, it’s impossible. If I go in the street, I see a thing in the garbage. I see a shape. I see the shape of a cloud and it gives me an idea for a story and I’ve always got my little cards and books and I write it down immediately. And it’s either for writing or an idea for a collage or this or that. And then I’m under constant pressure. I’m over-creative and I have too many ideas.

What’s your next book?

I’m working on six, seven, eight books. One is a book of puns for children to show them how to play with words. And I want to finish off now with a book that is pure poetry. I love the fog. I love the moon, the full moon. It will be about the moon and the fog. And I love this place which is the back of beyond. I was thinking yesterday, we always talk about the back of beyond, but we don’t know what the front looks like. I’m putting that in a book.


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