Jean-Thomas (or Tomi) Ungerer was born in Strasbourg (France) on November 28, 1931. His background is Alsatian, bourgeois, protestant, with very conservative and puritan values: the Ungerers, the paternal branch, belonged to a dynasty of clockmakers which settled in Strasbourg many generations ago, and the Esslers, the maternal branch, was a family of industrials from the Haut-Rhin.
When Tomi was four years old, he lived through a cruel event: his father died of septicaemia. It was a trauma from which he never recovered, and which he describes as follows: "I was born with death". Due to financial problems following her husband's death, Alice Ungerer moved with her children - Bernard, Edith, Geneviève and Tomi, the youngest - to her parents'house in Logelbach, the industrial suburb of Colmar. Tomi lived there until 1953, in a warm, affectionate family.
The personality of young Tomi was able to expand without constraints in a family in which artistic and literary sensibilities were very developed. His father had built up a very eclectic library, which stimulated Tomi Ungerer's love for literature: "I was raised with a respect and love of books", he remembers.
In this library, he found his first childhood books: his first picture book, by Benjamin Rabier, Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann, L'histoire d'Alsace contée aux petits enfants by Hansi, were part of his everyday life.
In fact, reading, as well as music, was a real family ritual: during the long winter evenings, Alice Ungerer would tell her children about the legends of Germancy and the Rhineland, she would sing an play on the piano the old popular German melodies from Hausbuch by Ludwig Richter.
Tomi Ungerer's first artistic emotions had roots in the Rhineland. He discovered at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar the Retable d'Issenheim by Mathias Grünewald, and was deeply fascinated by the scene of the Tentation of Saint Antoine. Its expressionism later influenced his work. At the Museum of Basel, he admired the engravings of Cranach and of Holbein, which later inspird his macabre dances of Rigor Mortis.
His childhood years were marked by the war. He lived the different episodes of the war with curiosity rather than a real sense of danger. He tells about this period in A la guerre come à la guerre (1991) and in Die Gedanken sind frei (1993). In these first sketches full of freshness, he shows an early sense of observation, especially in his caricatures of the German army. From this period, he retains a profound disgust of war and hatred of fascism.
The post-war period brought about many doubts and revolts for Tomi Ungerer. After his failure at the Baccalauréat in 1951, due to a lack of motivation, he hitchhiked to Cap Nord, on a real expedition. He acquired a taste for adventure and decided to do his military service among the Meharists in Algeria. His drawings from these years are macabre, inspired by the main post-war philosophical current, existentialism. He spent a short time, in 1953, at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg, in the graphic arts section, but it proved to be a deception. He started doing commercial art for a few local companies. However, after a year of wanderings in Europe, a professional failure in Paris, he decided to leave for America.
In Strasbourg, thanks to the American Cultural Center and to some Fullbright students, he came in contact with American culture, which fascinated the French post-war youth. He read Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, discovered jazz, blues, and the satirical drawings of the famous magazine The New Yorker. He particularly admired Saul Steinberg's style, and decided to go to New York to meet him ...
New York represented in his eyes a free city, with no prejudices, where all was possible: like so many before him, he arrived in New York for the first time in 1956 with a few manuscripts and drawings, and 60 dollars in hand. His dream came true with the publication, in 1957, of his first book for children, The Mellops Go Flying (Harper & Row). It was an immediate success. With the help of the Jewish community, his reputation grew in the very different domains of children's books and publicity. By 1958, following Saul Steinberg's path, he drew cartoons for the The New Yorker, as well as Esquire, Life Show, Fortune, Harpers and Holiday. A large part of his drawings are presented in The Underground Sketchbook (1964) or Der Herzinfarkt (1962), which denounce the morals and habits of his contemporaries.
At the same time, his career as as commercial artist took off suddenly, in the favorable context of the Sixties, which were a golden age for advertising and which marked the explosion of a consumer society.
Between 1958 and 1962, Tomi published three more books in the Mellops series; he wrote and illustrated more books for children: Crictor (1958), Adelaide (1959), Emil (1960), Rufus (1961), and the Three Robbers (1961). He began his collaboration with Diogenes Verlag, a publishing house in Zürich, which has published most of his books. 1962 is the year of his first major exhibition, in Berlin, and the birth of his daughter Phoebe. In 1966, he published Moon Man, and in 1967, Zeralda's Ogre.
At the height of his success, Tomi Ungerer reacted to what he perceived as the hypocrisy and the superficiality of New York's society, and, in 1970, he decided to break from the life he led and moved, with his wife Yvonne Wright, to a farm on a peninsula in Nova Scotia (Canada). Three books, which he considers as testaments of a long-gone period, are ferocious testimonies of his social criticism of New York and the United States: The Party (1996), Fornicon (1970), and America (1974).
His departure for new horizons, first Nova Scotia, and then Ireland, put things in perspective for him. Distancing himself from the financial success of his New York Years, he priviledged other values: one of his major priorities was to raise a family with his wife Yvonne. They have three children: Aria, born in 1976, Lukas, born in 1978, and Pascal, born in 1980. During this period, his drawings have a tenderness less present in his earlier work. In 1973, he published No Kiss for Mother, which is partly autobiographical. It followed the publication of The Beast of Monsieur Racine (1971), a story based on a joke, on mischief, on fantasy, on the comic grotesque, and on tomi Ungerer's sense of play.
In the 1970's, he also strengthened his ties with Alsace. In 1975, the Musée d'Art Moderne in Strasbourg held a large retrospective exhibition of his drawings; and in 1976 he started to donate his collection of mechanical toys to the City of Strasbourg. Tomi Ungerer explains: "In Alsace, I stumbled upon my roots". This change was brought about by the illustrations he did for Das Grosse Liederbuch (1975): working with thousands of sketches kept in notebooks, he drew the portrait of an ideal Alsace, one which he remembered from his childhood walks, and from the illustrations of Hansi and Schnug in his childhood readings.
Although he stopped doing children's books, he continue do publish very diversified drawings: erotic, in Totempole (1976), Femme Fatale (1984) and Schutzengel der Hölle (1986), satirical, in Babylon (1979), Symptomatics (1982) and Schwarzbuch (1984), and on the theme of death in Rigor Mortis (1983) and Warteraum (1985). In Slow Agony (1983) and Heute hier, morgen fort (1983), his drawings are very classical, and privilege the observation of nature. They owe much to Tomi Ungerer's study of the great masters of the past, Grünewald, Dürer and Friedrich.
Since the 1980s, he has been dedicating much time to enhancing Franco-German relations and to preserving the identity, the particularisms and the bilinguilism of Alsace, a region no longer mythical for Tomi Ungerer, but which is confronted with real problems. In 1991, he published A la guerre comme à la guerre, the first volume of his souvenirs and childhood drawings.
Tomi Ungerer evaluates his production between 30'000 an 40'000 drawings, covering 40 years of artistic creation. It is difficult to have a coherent vision of this production: the styles, as well as the means of expression (children's books, cartoons, posters ...) are so diverse. Tomi Ungerer has never wanted to be classified in a specific technique or genre, to preserve the difference, the originality, of his ideas.
However, his work is coherent in its finality. His predilection always goes to the study of human society. He uses the art of criticism with no hatred, but with a cruelty and a search for truth which is the prerogative of children. His works for children and for adults are closely tied. He is one of the greatest illustrators of children's books.
(from Thérère Willer, catalogue of the exhibition on Tomi Ungerer at the Wilhelm-Busch-Museum of Hanover, June 1995 - translated and adapted from the French by Catherine Lapautre).