In the late 60’s Tomi Ungerer moves to new offices on 42nd street, Mahattan’s red Light district. As is common then, he sends all his friends and acquaintances a card with his new details. Except, he is Tomi, and true to his style and biting sense of humour he does not send a regular card but a neatly folded poster that opens showing him smiling and happily waving from an opened door situated between a woman’s open legs. A rebirth of sorts and a wink to the women working in his new neighbourhood.
What Tomi probably does not know then is that his heydays in the US are already counted at the time, and his phenomenal success will be matched only by his quick demise.
Tomi’s adventures and success in the US start as another “American Dream” story. Only a year after arriving in the US, with but $60 in his pocket and a trunk full of drawings and manuscripts, Tomi’s success starts with the publication of his first children's book “ The Mellops go Flying” and his first advertising campaign.
A stark contrast with his rather difficult childhood and early adulthood in France. His first memories and drawings date from the dark days Alsace was occupied by the Germans. Described by one of his school teachers as a “willfully perverse and subversive individualist” he fails his Baccalauréat. From there he is discharged from the French Camel Corps for illness and thereafter he is kicked out of the Decorative Arts School in Strasbourg. It is at that point that Tomi feels ants in his pants and the need to travel and discover new horizons.
Tomi's career peaks shortly after his arrival in the US. Besides his success with his children's books, he also makes a name for himself with witty advertising campaigns for the New York Times and the Village Voice, biting satirical illustrations about the business world, and brutal pictorial responses to racism, fascism, and the Vietnam War.
Ungerer also makes graphic and satirical erotic drawings throughout his career. If those drawings never shocked or disturbed him in his career in Europe, it is too much for puritanical America and it will bring him to his downfall from the US where he will be ostracized from society, banned from libraries, punished and ultimately sent away.
From the US, Tomi, will emigrate to Canada where he gets married before returning to the Old Continent and relocating in Ireland where he lives till today.
His career will flourish in Europe and he will be the recipient of numerous prizes and awards. Not only will he receive the Jacob Burckhardt prize by the Goethe Foundation, be made Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters and be appointed Chargé de Mission by Jack Lang the French Minister of Culture, he will also be awarded the Légion d’Honneur in Paris in 1990.
On the other side of the Atlantic, however, matters will take much longer to resolve and it will take him some 40 years to be re-instated. In 2012, the documentary by American director, Brad Bernstein “Far Out isn’t enough: The Tomi Ungerer’s Story” premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. Three years later a major retour and retrospective is organized in his honour in NY “All in One”. An amused but satisfied 83 year old Tomi attends the event. He is finally back. After more than 40 years in exile, his work is finally getting the attention and praise it deserves in the difficult NY Art World.
'Calling Card' is available at Photo Image Gallery, rue Haute 92, 1000 Brussels