In the past week since the heartbreaking passing of illustrator Tomi Ungerer, numerous creatives have taken to the internet to praise an artist so formative to an endless list of illustration practices.
The news of his death at the age of 87 has been met with, of course, sorrow, but also a general feeling of slight worry on how the creative landscape will shift with him gone. In a current period of general political unrest and immense community divides, it’s haunting to imagine a world without a man able to inspire the creative imagination of children, as well as uproot the desire to stand up for something – anything, in adults through his satirical social commentary.
A prolific artist, Tomi published over 140 books in his career. From his first published children’s book, The Mellops Go Flying, in 1957 to the renowned Flat Stanley and Moon Man, Tomi’s work is one that when mentioned induces a nostalgic sigh in anyone who read, or was read, his books as a child. For many creatives, Tomi’s storytelling ability and narrative illustrations, which shared both the wrong and the right in the world without passing any judgement on either, presented a way of depicting things differently. He showed how illustration could be a way to truthfully communicate, shine a light, poke fun and educate too – even if that education came in the form of a Kama Sutra book that uses the beauty of frogs legs to demonstrate the joy of sex.
To honour Tomi and the inspirational creative legacy he has left behind, we reached out to a number of illustrators whose work shows sneaking signs of Ungerer-ness. The response was as heartwarming and uplifting as you’d expect, with many sharing personal stories of meeting the illustrator, or the first time they stumbled across his work. Nadine Redlich’s contribution – the sausage sitting above this text, shows how in a world of constant visual references, Tomi’s work will still catch your eye like a dear old pal. Her illustration is an ode to her first encounter with his work during “a weird trip to a little German town where I surprisingly saw an original drawing by Tomi Ungerer at a butchery museum surrounded by instruments to make sausages and weird collections of porcelain pigs.”
Below, read Cynthia Kittler, Lennard Kok, Anna Haifisch, Liana Jegers, Nishant Choksi, Clay Hickson and Matt Dorfman’s memories of Tomi and the impact he made on their individual creative practices. But for now, we’ll leave you with a quote Tomi’s family shared on the news of his passing. Taken from a documentary in 2012 inspired by his 1983 published memoir Far Out Isn’t Far Enough Tomi says: “It is the unknown, and that’s what’s really fantastic about death and why death has to be welcomed. And, when I die, I’ll find out what’s behind the far out, maybe just nothing, but nothing is fantastic too because if you’re faced with nothing you can fill it up, with your mind.”
Eight years ago I had the chance to see Tomi Ungerer at a reading in a New York City bookstore. At the reading, he did some live drawing and the kids in the first row laughed their arses off about his elephants with doors in their huge legs and pigs with elephant trunks which he cut into little trunk pieces.
I admire his humour, variety, books like The Moon Man, his political posters, his satire like The Party, and that he worked in so many nuances, styles and techniques. This quote is something I always try to remind myself of: “Not to be afraid of showing your various traits of personality through artistic work.”
I first came in touch with the works of Tomi Ungerer during my study at the school of arts. I fell in love with his work for the book The Three Robbers. I loved its simplicity and his use of colour.
After this, I learned about all his other works and discovered he did like four books a year. Studying Tomi’s work taught me how to draw in a series by taking a simple “1+1= 2 concept”. For instance his book Fornicon, a series of drawings combining erotica and objects. Or his book The Joy of Frogs again using a simple concept as frogs and Kamasutra.
Besides all this, I admire his vision on what you can do as an illustrator and how you can use this for all kinds of different disciplines such as architecture or sculpture.
My favourite Tomi Ungerer book is Crictor. As a child, I was so impressed by the fact that a snake needs a very loooooong bed (of course!!). When I draw animals nowadays I often think of the very logical things that occur with the anatomy of said drawn animals and how funny that can be.
Later, when I went to art school, I discovered Slow Agony and fell in love with his work once again. Tomi Ungerer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists of the century. I admire his work so much that I put him as one of the main characters in my first comic book Von Spatz to bow down to the master.
Farewell, dear Tomi!
I didn’t read Tomi Ungerer’s books growing up – I was a die-hard Bemelmans girl – so I remember seeing them but they didn’t really stick with me until I was an adult. I reread Moon Man after hearing he passed and marvelled again at everything in it that he’s so good at; curiosity and contradiction (it’s never plainly good vs. bad in his stories); his use of rich black for negative space instead of the white of the paper, which makes Moon Man himself feel like a steadfast source of light throughout; and the tactile quality of his drawings, which are full of contradictions too: painterly but not sloppy, simple yet not minimal, and expressive without being caricatures.
Looking through Tomi’s books and drawings again makes me want to… well… draw!
I accidentally stumbled upon Tomi Ungerer’s work in the reference library at Central St Martins when I was a student. The book was _ Testament, a collection of his drawings from 1960-80. It was so brutal I nearly put it back on the shelf! The book opens with drawings from the “Party” – strange women with sharp features and pointy breasts, a woman peeling a mans face exposing his skull, drawings of a man with rats in the place of his eyes and so on. I laughed at the more humorous drawings such as the cat opening a sardine can full of mice and I admired the honest, graphic beauty of the anti-Vietnam posters. I had never seen anything like this before. The book was so good I actually contemplated stealing it from the library!
Discovering Tomi’s work is, as he puts it, a visual “fist punch”. It is wickedly funny, irreverent and there is no holding back. I would be happy if I could succeed a little of this in my own work, to make viewers feel something as strongly as I did when I first saw his work. To make work that is visceral, to make a statement big or small, to be visually bold and make viewers laugh or wince.
A week doesn’t go by where I don’t pick up a Tomi book, either to read his stories to my children or as a reminder to keep pushing my boundaries and make work that offers comment on society. When I give ideas to a client I try to include one I think Tomi would approve of. Unfortunately, most of these ideas stay in my own “Underground sketchbook”.
Honestly, I’m probably not the best person to pay tribute. I mean, Moon Man was one of my favourite books as a kid, but it’s kind of hard for me to pinpoint the influence it had on me. It was only in recent years that I really started to appreciate Tomi’s work from an illustration standpoint. As a kid, I just loved the stories. In retrospect, I’m realising that I was always drawn to the slightly darker or edgier children’s books. The stories that weren’t such a clear case of good vs. evil, but that made you empathise with the villains and question the motives of the heroes. I think Tomi really was a master of that.
Calling Tomi a genius underserves him. That his voice still remains strong enough to bind connective tissue between children’s books, advertising, sociopolitical outrage and unambiguously X-rated erotic drawings elevates his vision beyond a term like that. In Tomi’s view, stories for children ought to acknowledge the failings of adults, and Tomi captures those adult failings as uniformly childish without moralising. For this perspective he was often regarded as perverted and dangerous; but what if he was just fundamentally honest about humanity in a way that most adults won’t allow themselves to be? We’ve lost a legendary truth teller and a hero and we might not deserve another one.
I bought this postcard of his Dr. Strangelove poster in Italy over twenty years ago. Once I got back to the states I framed it and it’s hung in every apartment I’ve lived in since. Right now it’s the only thing hanging on our bedroom wall near the light switch. What else deserves to compete?