Little Goldbug

Iain Bamforth

Tomi Ungerer is a household name in the German-speaking world – at least in that portion of it which raises 1.6 children. He has published 120 books, many of them for children; in 1997 he won the Hans Christian Andersen Prize. He was born into a famous family of clockmakers in 1931, and raised in a suburb of Colmar, one of those idyllic medieval towns on the Rhine that seem lost to time.

Like any child growing up in Alsace between the wars, Ungerer couldn’t avoid the influence of Hansi, a local artist and French propagandist during the period of Prussian rule which followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, a time when most Alsatians were largely indifferent to Kulturpolitik. Ungerer’s work most resembles Hansi’s in his illustrations to Das grosse Liederbuch (1975), a collection of German folksongs and nursery rhymes. Hansi was a super-patriot – ‘la France quand même’ – whose pictorial History of Alsace Told for Young Children shows a succession of bespectacled Teutons bumbling through Alsatian villages while freshly rinsed children with black bows and tricolour rosettes in their hair laugh at them behind their backs. But there is an older, more harrowing influence evident in Ungerer’s work. When he studied at the Lycée Bartholdi in Colmar, Ungerer used to shelter from the rain in the cloister, which houses Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altar. There are two scenes in the altarpiece to trouble even the most secular of imaginations: the angular, violent crucifixion, and the garish temptations which quite outshine St Anthony.

At the age of 25 Ungerer set sail for New York with $60 in his pocket; he is now rich and famous and lives in Ireland, where his own children went to school. In the 1980s Jack Lang employed him as a kind of cultural ambassador, and he frequently pops up as a wise fool on the local television station Arte, which broadcasts from Strasbourg in French and German. He visits Strasbourg regularly, and recently convinced the city to finance the conversion of an old cinema into what will open next year as the European Centre of Yiddish Cultures. Although his style as a caricaturist and graphic designer has been influenced over the years by Americans like Thurber and Steinberg, his formative influences were Old World: the drawings often resemble a pandemonium out of Wilhelm Busch (the notes flying off the score in Busch’s 1865 image of a pianist dementedly attacking a ‘finale furioso’ appear to land in Ungerer’s children’s book Tremolo), solemnised with a touch of Doré’s fabulism and Grosz’s social bite.

The slogan ‘Expect the Unexpected’ is Ungerer’s and dates back to the 1960s, when he earned a living from the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue and shared an apartment with Philip Roth. In 1964 he designed the poster for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. His pacifism and his posters against the war in Vietnam brought him to the attention of the FBI; he was blacklisted until 1993. He campaigned, too, on behalf of the civil rights movement: his striking ‘Black Power – White Power’ poster of 1967, which relies for its shock effect on two symmetrical figures – one white, the other black – each gnawing the other’s leg, recycles work he did twenty years earlier as an apprentice cartoonist in Alsace.

The mordant comment on racial conflict came from Ungerer’s first-hand experience of conflict in Europe: he has exported Alsace’s problems to the world without anyone noticing. Or rather, the world has politicised itself along Europe’s old fracture line. Ungerer was nine in the first year of the Aktion Elsass, when the Nazis overran the concrete elephants of the Maginot Line and set about erasing all traces of French influence and language from the daily life of the Alsatians. German had to be learned in three months. Posters announcing ‘Hinaus mit dem welschen Plunder’ were plastered all over Strasbourg: ‘out with the Gallic trash.’ (‘Welsch’ is an old German pejorative for anything foreign and from the west, especially French words and mores.) Four years later, when the French reclaimed Alsace, it was tit for tat: Alsatians were sales Boches. The fact that some of them had been involved in Wehrmacht atrocities in France didn’t help either.

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