The Drawing Center is currently honoring pioneer illustrator Tomi Ungerer, with an ambitious look at his expansive career of diverse themes and motifs. Born in Alsace shortly before World War II tore through Europe, Ungerer moved to New York in 1956, where he published his first series of works. Although his divergent artistic interests led him to compile a comprehensive oeuvre from advertisement campaigns for publications including the New York Times to graphically striking illustrations criticizing the politics of his time, Ungerer came to prominence in the U.S. as a children’s books author. His objection to this type of categorization eventually led him to move to Nova Scotia with his wife, later followed by another relocation to Ireland, where he currently resides.
Among his children’s books, The Three Robbers stands as the epitome of the artist’s bold and unorthodox approach. Using highly unconventional depictions and a darkened color palette for its era, this book, originally published in 1961, transfers Ungerer’s long term interest in darkness, a tool used “to be close to fantasy” as the artist describes it. Concurrently, Ungerer illustrated a series of fables for adults contemplating political, social and the cultural landscape from the Vietnam War to the effects of fast-rising mechanization. Ungerer’s uncompromising, witty satire compliments his vision as an artist, while the currenty relevance of his depictions underscore the continued issues related to humanity over the past half century.
Eventually self-published after they were found overly graphic, his Columbia University commissioned anti-war posters, as well as his 2015-dated Liberté Crucifiée, which Ungerer inked as a response to the recent murderous attack at Charlie Hebdo office share a direct language that do not shy away from necessities of their content. At the same time, an unexpected innocence populates the works, putting forth strong sentiments and a sense of pictorial wonder at the same time.
Awaiting the visitors behind a sign warning for their graphic content are Ungerer’s less known illustrations of erotic and pornographic imagery, a body of work he mostly created during his years in Hamburg during the 1980’s. Aside from his depictions of various sexual acts, Ungerer pays special attention to sado-masochism and the figure of dominatrix as “a healer.”
The diversity evident in his other series is also present in his sexual depictions ranging from humorous to dark, maneuvering between studies with crayons to mechanized, historical influences from the early Industrial Revolution. Doing justice to its title, the exhibition at The Drawing Center brings the large span of Ungerer’s artistry under one roof, guiding visitors though different stops of his prolific career.
Tomi Ungerer: All in One is on view at The Drawing Center through March 22, 2015.
*All images are by Osman Can Yerebakan for Art Observed.
— O.C. Yerebakan
The Drawing Center [Exhibition Page]