Exhibition tour: Tomi Ungerer Sammlung Würth
The French artist Tomi Ungerer was one of the major and also most provocative illustrators of the present day. His enormous oeuvre encompasses more than 40,000 drawings, oil paintings, poster designs, collages, lithographs, woodcuts and objects. Then there are his 140 books, ranging from social satire to fairy tales, including modern children's classics such as “The Three Robbers” and “Moon Man”.
Tomi Ungerer was born in Strasbourg in 1931. After hitchhiking around Europe and publishing first drawings in the humor magazine “Simplicissimus”, his true career began in New York in the 1950s, where he became famous as a graphic artist, children's book author, draftsman and painter. Throughout his lifetime he was politically committed. His posters protesting the Vietnam War and racial segregation are eloquent examples of this and count among the finest products of contemporary graphic art. His acerbic commentaries on American high society were both entertaining and drastic, and were collected in the volume “The Party”, 1966. This and further publications, including some comprising risqué erotic drawings, made it impossible for Ungerer to stay in the USA. His children's books were censored and the FBI even put him under surveillance. He escaped for a few years to Canada, then settled in 1976 in Ireland.
He never abandoned his stance, as Andreas Platthaus put it, of “shedding light on his own dark side as fearlessly as on other people's.” His statement that “hell is the devil's paradise” illustrates Ungerer's philosophy of life, ambivalent yet always open-minded. His difficult childhood, spent in Alsace between the front lines of World War II, led to a lifelong effort to reconcile France and Germany. After his move to Ireland, he found not only a new home but a European audience, especially following his “Grosses Liederbuch” (Great Songbook), 1975, in which he took up the tradition of German Romantic illustration and made it part of his changeable repertoire.
In his many works, Ungerer effortlessly alternated the Romantic style of the German almanach with the rapid stroke of a Wilhelm Busch, the illustration art of his fellow Alsatian Gustave Doré, the bite of French social satirists like Grandville, and the Anglo-American humor of his friends Ronald Searle
and Saul Steinberg. His work is marked by spontaneity, intellectual curiosity, love of experiment, and an obsessive search for the perfect line. In short, this brilliant observer of banalities and absurdities compellingly evoked the human comedy. That his illustration work was accompanied by extensive series of collages and sculptures, mostly done in the last two decades, has remained unknown even to most of Ungerer's admirers. It was a merit of the comprehensive solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Würth in 2010 to have shed fresh light on the diversity of the artist Tomi Ungerer, who apart from his commissioned pieces created a fantastic universe of original works. Tomi Ungerer died in Cork, Ireland, in 2019.
The exhibition at Forum Würth Arlesheim, based on the rich holdings of 250 Ungerer works from the Würth Collection, provides a cross-section through the enormous and fascinating oeuvre of this highly relevant artist.