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Arts

Awkward artist and freethinker Tomi Ungerer turns 85

His work is multifaceted, humorous and edgy. Erotic fantasies and apocalyptic scenes are as much a part of his repertoire as peaceful children’s worlds. At 85, Tomi Ungerer is still asking philosophical questions.

Tomi Ungerer, who is 85 on Monday, says he's lived five lives already.

Work is his life - the capturing of moments between people through sketches and drawings is his passion. His lines are extraordinarily precise, his drawings conversational. But Ungerer’s subversive humor is not for everyone.

Beyond his inexhaustible, precisely considered drawings, the artist’s passion is that of being a citizen of the world. He calls the French Alsace region his home, though he is well traveled, having hitchhiked to the North Pole, worked as a camel driver in the Sahara desert and boarded an Icelandic fishing cutter.

These experiences helped him get to know the world from the bottom up and influenced his work. For his controversial sketchbook, "The Guardian Angel of Hell," he moved in with a well-known dominatrix in Hamburg in order to study sado-masochistic practices.

Subversive world citizen

One of the few artists who appeals to both young and adult audiences, Ungerer has also enjoyed illustrating children's books throughout his career. Shortly before his 85th birthday, his latest was released under the title, "Why am I not you?" With his cartoons, Ungerer responds to the big philosophical questions that children are often concerned with. He has remained an attentive political observer of world affairs over time.

His most artistic major work to date was one that took over five years of intensive work: a collection of German folk music and songs for children over the age of three, "The Great Song Book," which is accompanied by his sketches. It portrays a utopia, an idyllic children's world, as he had recalled from his home in the Alsace.

Adventurous gap years

The famous illustrator was born as Jean Thomas Ungerer on November 28, 1931 in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg. His father, a historian and artist who manufactured clocks, died when Ungerer was still young. He was held back from playing with other children his age by his frightened mother, and used his time alone to draw.

As a young man, he made his way through the world, embarking on numerous adventurous journeys after he quit school shortly before his exams and taking on a job decorating shop windows. He later said that he was searching for something but wasn’t quite sure what that was.

In 1956, "Tomi" went to New York for the first time with just $60 in his pocket. He worked as an advertising illustrator and political cartoonist for various magazines, including "The New York Times," "Esquire" and "Life." The work was a great distinction for the otherwise unknown artist from Europe. His first children's book, "The Mellops Go Flying," was released in the US in 1957.

A bold career as illustrator

That same year, he met the Swiss publisher Daniel Keel, who signed him on under contract with his publishing house Diogenes. A bold and highly successful career took off. Books, exhibitions, prizes and honors piled up. In 1995, he was awarded France’s National Prize for Graphic Arts and in 2007, a museum dedicated to his work - Musée Tomi Ungerer - was opened in Strasbourg.

Tomi Ungerer holds up a book of his sketches (picture-alliance/dpa)

The artist and his controversial work at a press conference in Strasbourg on his 80th birthday

Fame didn’t sit well with the artist and he retreated into a self-chosen loneliness. He avoided big cities and lived for some time in rural Canada. Since 1976, he has resided in the Irish countryside. Yet he’s not an artist for whom the world remains foreign. Just the opposite. From his chosen home, he continues to voice opinions about political events and social inequalities in a globalized world. One of his drawings, for example, shows a dead American soldier with the caption, "What now?"

'Ideas are free…' is his life's motto

Ungerer's social engagements are enormous: He supports initiatives in the fight against AIDS, and for animal rights and the Red Cross. As a pacifist, peace activism is close to his heart. He experienced the brutality of military service as member of the Foreign Legion in the 1950s.

He remains an inveterate optimist and would like to jolt the world, to change things for the better. He published his autobiography in German in 1993 as "Die Gedanken sind frei - Meine Kindheit im Elsass" and under the title, "Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis" in English in 1998. In it, he discusses his life in the Alsace under Nazi occupation and talks about the difficult post-war years that really influenced him.

"Here today, gone tomorrow…" are the words sung by one of his characters. And that’s how he feels today. "I have my roots in the Alsace and take my leaves and my branches with me."

He says it cheerfully, with the hat of a deceased friend atop his own white hair, supporting himself on a cane and with a pale pink scarf wrapped around his neck. Tomi Ungerer has survived three heart attacks and a bout of cancer, yet his perspective remains as mischievous as ever.

 

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