A pioneering mid-century graphic artist, Tomi Ungerer wrote and illustrated sensationally successful children’s books, created stunningly powerful political posters and worked with the original Mad Men on advertising campaigns. He also drew erotic pictures, some so provocative and disturbing that all of his books were pulled from libraries and taken off the market.
Times change. Now Ungerer is recognized as one of the most respected and influential illustrators and graphic designers of the 20th century, and he has inspired “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story,” a Kickstarter-funded documentary from producer, director and writer Brad Bernstein. It combines interviews of the artist with interviews from Ungerer’s admiring peers, Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, and illustration expert Steven Heller.
Ungerer’s ice-blue eyes, sharp tongue and palpable enjoyment in shocking the bourgeoisie make him an engaging narrator. His bold and compelling images add visual vitality to what would otherwise be a lot of talking heads and archival footage.
From his birth, he has always lived between worlds, and as an adult, he took great pleasure in an almost compulsive need to transgress boundaries. He was born in the Alsace, a Franco-German region, which was occupied by Germany when he was a child. He proudly tells us how his mother outsmarted the Nazis and painfully explains that he was derided for his German accent by the French after the war.
He moved to New York in 1956 and quickly became well-known to children’s book audiences for his irreverent picture books of the 1950s and ’60s. No bunnies and puppies for him; his books featured a boa constrictor, an octopus, a bat and a child-eating ogre — and he made them lovable. His ads for clients like the Village Voice reflected the anti-establishment sentiments of the era. His scathing political drawings went even further. He loved the freedom and opportunity of America but was horrified by segregation and the Vietnam War. This outrage inspired some of his most strident work, which he described as “fist-style,” influenced by the Nazi propaganda he saw as a child.
The artist who was “brought up puritanically Protestant” became an enthusiastic participant in the sexual revolution, reflected in his exploration of erotica and bondage images. In those pre-Google days, it took a while for anyone to associate the children’s book author with the man who created frankly disturbing sexual material. Pressed about it at an American Library Association meeting, he was defensive and offensive. Libraries refused to carry his books, and once again, he fled to another country, first Canada and then Ireland.
It is a story worth telling. But Bernstein cannot bring himself to apply the same brutal honesty to his subject as Ungerer does to his. Now 81, Ungerer may see himself as a persecuted voice of tolerance and freedom, but Bernstein goes too far by inflating some of Ungerer’s accomplishments and airbrushing some of his defects. He claims that when Ungerer arrived in the United States, the illustration work of the time was corny, middlebrow and unimaginative. This ignores pioneering work of predecessors like Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Al Parker.
Still, it is absorbing to watch Ungerer continue to grapple with issues of identity and boundaries. He makes an explicit connection between despair and humor. He relishes his contradictions. While his daughter tells us he yearns for a sense of belonging, he resists it as well. It is telling that the only time he tears up is when he describes his admiration for his Irish neighbors, who maintain their good cheer and sense of place, despite a history of oppression and bigotry. We see him turn his own fear of isolation and rejection into art. “Flix,” his first children’s book in 23 years, is the story of cat parents whose baby turns out to be a dog. Spoiler alert: They live happily ever after.