Tomi Ungerer (November 28, 1931 - February 8, 2019) was a complex man. His artwork reflected that complexity.
Ungerer’s work has often been called subversive for its themes of war, sexuality, and social commentary. While this may hold some truth, it’s potentially a superficial label for a labyrinthine-like career and life that traveled the globe and multiple medias and art forms.
Ungerer was born in 1931 in Strasbourg, France and grew up in a city occupied by Nazi forces. This would have a lasting impact on a young Tomi, as his work often reflected the violence of war and the weapons used during this time. It also lead Ungerer’s role in multiple campaigns against fascism, racism, and bigotry. It’s not surprising his work also touched on themes of nuclear disarmament, integration, and humanitarianism.
His books for children did not shy away from these topics. Characters facing real and absurd issues had one thing in common: a desire to better their world. From family travels, to robber-fighting snakes, ogres, and a moon man, Ungerer’s characters longed for a better world, one united against extremism, intolerance, and greed.
It’s a message that has reached many. Writing in New York, Canada, and finally Ireland, Ungerer published over 140 books and he has been translated into over thirty languages. It’s a message we need now more than ever.
Ungerer was a complex man. He was also a genius, and he will be greatly missed.
The Free Library houses many samples of Tomi Ungerer’s artwork in our Special Collections. For more information, please visit our finding aid.