Lots of proud parents put their kids’ artwork up on the refrigerator, but Tomi Ungerer’s childhood drawings, saved by his mother, took crayon on paper handiwork to a whole new level by documenting the Nazi invasion of his French home town.
As chronicled in new film Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, the illustrator would later charm children, skewer war mongers, and indulge his personal fascination with sado-masochistic erotica with equal aplomb.
Director Brad Bernstein says “We think people will vibe with the film just because of all these different periods that Tomi captured as an illustrator-journalist.”
Haunted by early encounters with the Gestapo in his native Strasbourg, Ungerer hit New York in 1956 with $65 in his pocket. He quickly found work illustrating print ads, then authored best-selling children’s books that won awards for their wry blend of whimsy and spookiness. “It was a natural progression for Tomi to keep challenging himself,” notes Bernstein. “Here’s this successful Madison Avenue illustrator, and then he’s going neck and neck with Maurice Sendak when they’re both at top of their profession. But unlike Maurice, Tomi had no inhibitions.”
Obsessed with the female form when he wasn’t churning out iconic anti-war posters and fantastical fables, Ungerer produced erotic drawings collected in cult publications like Fornica and The Party. The S & M imagery proved to be Ungerer’s professional undoing. Bernstein recounts, “At a children’s book convention, Tomi got confronted by a librarian about these dual worlds he was working in, and instead of backing down–-which he never does–Tomi fought back. They didn’t take kindly to it, and that’s the turning point, when everything went into a downslide.”
Essentially blackballed by the publishing establishment, Ungerer exiled himself to Nova Scotia in the early ’70s and later moved with his wife to Ireland, where at age 81, he continues to work.
Bernstein had never heard of Ungerer until he spotted a 2008 New York Times article celebrating Phaidon’s re-publication of early work including The Three Robbers, but he came to know the wine-drinking, cigarette-rolling artist over the course of several weeks’ filming. Bernstein notes “Tomi’s a provocateur. At the end of the film he says the thing he admires most about the Irish is that they’re genuine, and that’s what I learned about Tomi: He takes firm positions on things.”
Check out the slide show for a sampling of Ungerer’s eye-witness renderings of Nazis, nudes, fables, ice skating, and racism.