“Far Out Isn’t Far Enough”: Happy Birthday to celebrated French satirist and illustrator Tomi Ungerer

By on November 28, 2015

Today we’re wishing French illustrator and satirist writer Tomi Ungerer — born Jean-Thomas Ungerer, on November 28, 1931, in Strasbourg, in Alsace, France — a happy birthday, and taking a moment to appreciate his incredible work which spans the spectrum, from much-loved children’s books to adult-themed sado-masochistic eroticism, and much of it autobiographical too, all of it testing societal boundaries through his use of subversive art with its biting social satire and gallows humor.

Have a look at this trailer for Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, a 2012 documentary based on his life which made the festival circuit rounds a few years back.

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Ungerer’s career began very early on, when he created drawings as a child, depicting the Nazi invasion of his French home town, the birthplace of Gustave Doré, the great ancestor of the French illustration — those drawings, saved by his mother, depicted his early interest in certain themes that would be consistent throughout his career (his father died when Ungerer was just three years old). He then did his military service in the French Camel Corps, after which he began training at the Ecole Municipale des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg, but was asked to leave after just a few months.

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In 1956, he traveled to America, hitting New York in 1956 with $65 in his pocket and many drawings whereupon Ursula Nordstrom, a publisher at Harper and Row, published his first book, The Mellops Go Flying, which arrived to great critical acclaim in 1957, the first of many subsequent books.

Madison Avenue ad firms began to take notice too and he began to create illustrations for print ads, which led to magazine covers and posters, and he was hired to do including advertising poster designs, often emblazoned with witty aphorisms, sometimes working for mega-corporations like Pepsi one day, and doing an anti-Vietnam War illustrations for a magazine like Evergreen the next. He created advertisements for The New York Times in the ’60s and illustrated for the Op-Ed page, as well as for Esquire, Life and The Village Voice.

Here’s a gallery showing some of his great work:

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Ungerer liked to single out profiting war-mongers and showing how outrageous and senseless all war is (his anti-Vietnam War drawings are some of our favorites), and often focused on other themes that were personal to him: racial injustice, repression through censorship and the horror of animal cruelty. His illustrations eventually put him on the FBI’s watch list.

Meanwhile, he authored many best-selling children’s books — including Moon Man and The Three Robbers — that have won awards for their wry blend of whimsy and spookiness, but his interests in S&M led to more erotic drawings, mostly depicting bawdy sexual acts and the naked female form, and this often put him at odds with those who only knew his work illustrating children’s stories. After the publication of his erotic drawings, in books for grown-ups like Fornicon and Guardian Angels of Hell, his children’s books went out of print.

He didn’t back down when he realized he was essentially being “blackballed” by the publishing world for his outrageous erotic work. Then, his outspoken views, about wanting to be able to draw whatever the hell he wanted, led to an unofficial ban on his books, and book publishers allowed his titles to go out of print.

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Ungerer went into self-imposed exile in the early 1970s, with his wife Yvonne, and they ended up on an isolated peninsula in Nova Scotia, Canada. The nearest town was two miles away and it was three years before they had a road to the house built. In his diary, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: Life in the Back of Beyond, originally published in 1983, Ungerer described in vivid detail their trials, tribulations and at times downright bizarre life on the isolated peninsula, which offered them the chance to create a totally different life for themselves, painting and writing, but Ungerer also he learned how to be a farmer, a herdsman and, where necessary, a butcher, because without ever intending to establish a farm they gradually acquired sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs and horses.

He didn’t work on another children’s book for nearly twenty-five years, though he continued to create illustrations meant for adults. Meanwhile, his work continued to get noticed, and soon he began to receive prestigious awards for his work: Legion d’Honneur France (1990); Order of the Deutsches Bundesverdienstdreuz Germany (1993), and the National Prize for Graphic Arts France (1995), among some of the earlier ones. Finally, the ban was lifted in 1998, and that year Ungerer received the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1998 for his “lasting contribution” as a children’s illustrator, which further acknowledged that he was right not to back down from doing the kind of creative work he wanted to do, and for not allowing himself to be pigeonholed into creating artwork just for children.

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He was subsequently been awarded or honored with the European Prize for Culture (1999), and named Officer of the Legion d’Honneur France (2000). In 2003 the Council of Europe chose Tomi Ungerer as their first Ambassador for Childhood and Education, and in 2007 the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg opened its doors to the public and has since been voted one of the 10 best museums in Europe by the Council of Europe.

His 2012 documentary, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (French: L’esprit Frappeur), directed by Brad Bernstein, was premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Today, Ungerer’s work remains as vital today as when it was originally conceived, and Ungerer has lived long enough to see the publication of over 150 books bearing his name.

Tomi Ungerer and his wife Yvonne live on their farm in West Cork, on the west coast of Ireland.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.