It was the perfect prelude to meeting Tomi Ungerer.
At film festivals like Toronto’s, hotels are the place for producers and publicists to do business, sometimes engaged in three-, four-, five-way conversations, as they scan everyone else passing by in the lobby. Networking gone berserk. Yet in one lobby, a woman sat down alone. She had no telltale film-festival lanyard around her neck, and she was looking around, but pretending not to, raising her eyebrow slyly. It was a clear hint of transgression in the otherwise business-only scene.
The Alsatian illustrator and writer would have appreciated this. Best known for his acclaimed children’s books and equally praised erotic art, Ungerer has spent his life on the margins, testing what’s acceptable and what’s not, manning “the barricades,” as he puts it. Now aged 80 and the focus of the documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, he is one of the most charismatic subjects in any film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
His aim over the years hasn’t been subversion, even considering the graphic anti-war, anti-imperialist posters produced in a spasm of anger during the Vietnam War era, or his detailed bondage drawings. His art is more a compulsive truth-telling – a need to show the devil in himself and in all of us.
“I’m a natural provocateur. This is what my barricades are all about,” he says with a mixed French-German accent.
If something needs saying, he puts it in his work. “And I put that in my children’s books too, my fight against racism, and all that. Le Nuage Bleu is about civil war. Otto is about the Nazi times.”
Growing up in Strasbourg during the Second World War, Ungerer lived through the brutality of the Nazis, who tried to force his family not to speak French, and the subsequent backlash from the victorious French who didn’t want Ungerer to speak German. It wasn’t until he left for New York, as a budding artist, that he was able to throw away those constraints – only to encounter new ones.
New York in the 1950s was a golden era for illustration, and Ungerer found success relatively quickly, particularly with now-classic children’s books like Crictor, about a boa constrictor, and the poster art for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. During the height of the Vietnam War, his anti-war drawings were powerful, confrontational. His adult-oriented drawings became more so too, including his Fornicon book, featuring drawings of fantastical sex machinery.
“I was asking for trouble, let’s put it that way. And I got it,” he says. “I haven’t given up on any of those things, not on satire, even my … people use the word pornography here, which I don’t like. I do erotic art, I do erotic elements to hit harder. But there was a sexual revolution, and I’ve said certainly that I’ve taken part of it.”
He was increasingly ostracized by New York publishers for his adult work, so he left, moving with his wife to live for a spell in Nova Scotia, before finally settling in Ireland.
Although he has been a perennial subject of documentaries in Europe, he is less well known in North America. The film Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is very much an introduction to the artist’s life and presents him as an eminently quotable character with a mental drawer of aphorisms.
Director Brad Berstein says Ungerer hates watching himself on television, although Ungerer, sitting in the hotel lobby, says he doesn’t mind this time, with the new film. “In terms of publicity, it’s only in the Anglo-Saxon world that I’ve been neglected. Otherwise, I’m a spoiled brat,” he jokes, flashing his unusually sharp-toothed grin.
Besides drawing and writing, he is heavily active in political work, a cultural ambassador of sorts, in areas such as education and the move to teach German again as a foreign language in primary schools in his native Alsace.
“I’ve had more lives than a cat, I’m always ready to change my mind, ready to change my prejudices – but then you have to replace them with others. I cannot live without my barricades. I have to be out there fighting for something,” he says. Overproductivity, he adds, “that’s my problem.” Again comes the toothy grin.
“I have so much anger in me, it’s got to go somewhere. So, I use it in my work. I’m just as thankful for my insecurity, for my inferiority complex. Everything is put to use. This is really the luxury of the artist. As I’ve said, I should be a muse for dispair.… Anger really is a great source of energy.”