The Artist Who Inspired Maurice Sendak Finally Gets His Due

Tomi Ungerer got famous from his children's books in the '60s, but then fell into scandal. A new documentary finds out what happened when he left the spotlight.

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Corner of the Cave

Tomi Ungerer is a genius. Or at least Maurice Sendak thought so: Without Ungerer, Sendak is shown saying in a new documentary, there could be no Where the Wild Things Are. One of America's most prolific and inventive advertising, editorial and children's book author/illustrators, Ungerer busted taboos in the '60s and forced the children's publishing establishment to accept otherwise unconventional characters as protagonists, like Crictor, a boa constrictor. No one had ever dared to make a kids book about a snake before.

Of course, breaking taboos rarely leads to an easy career, even for a genius.

Ungerer, despite the popular perception, didn't disappear entirely. He just disappeared from New York.

Ungerer's motto, "Expect the Unexpected," was a tagline used in ads he conceived for the Village Voice. And true to that sentiment, at the height of his career, he stepped over the line of convention by publishing erotic and sadomasochistic drawings. Although those drawings had nothing to do with his kids' work, many librarians removed his children's books from their stacks and book reviewers refused to write about his work. He subsequently "disappeared." Or at least, that's the premise of Brad Bernstein and Rick Cikowski's new documentary film, Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.

Bernstein, a Miami-based television documentary producer and co-founder of Corner of the Cave Media (a title ripped from a line in Ungerer's book The Three Robbers), spent four years on the Ungerer film after he read a 2008 New York Times article by Randy Kennedy provocatively titled, "Watch the Children, That Subversive Is Back."

"Randy's words literally jumped off the page, almost like a revelation," Bernstein told me. "The combination of Tomi being such a rich character and the fact that his personal story so uniquely weaved into the seminal events of the 20th century was pretty striking. He recorded the times by capturing it all in such a visually vivid way."

Ungerer, it turns out, did not actually disappear. After he couldn't sell another children's book, he bought a farm in Nova Scotia and wrote and illustrated a book about his experiences. He then moved back to his native Alsace region of France, where a museum devoted to his work was opened, and wrote a harrowing autobiography about growing up under Nazi occupation. In the '70s, he moved to Ireland. All the while, he continued to produce books, drawings, and exhibitions. In June 2011 the exhibition "Tomi Ungerer: Chronicler of the Absurd," opened at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. But he did disappear from New York, where he dominated the media for 10 years through his advertisements, books, and editorial art.

"If you poll 20 people on the street where our office is in Miami asking them if they've heard of Tomi Ungerer, 19 of them wouldn't have a clue what you're talking about, and one of them would faintly remember hearing the name," Bernstein says. "But when Maurice Sendak told me [on-camera] that Where The Wild Things Are would probably never have happened had it not been for Tomi, I think that speaks for itself. How come the majority of people from my generation can't even pronounce his name, let alone know who he is?"

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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