Last week, the children's book artist Tomi Ungerer returned to America for the first time in over a decade.
At a reception on Saturday at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Ungerer sat in a modernist armchair in front of dramatic windows overlooking an apple orchard. The afternoon sunlight reflected off his white hair, still cut in a mid-'60s mop-top. He wore a black suit, a black shirt, and black suede desert boots.
In the adjoining gallery, drawings from Ungerer's prolific career lined the walls. The exhibit, "Tomi Ungerer: Chronicler of the Absurd," includes sketches from The Mellops, a gentle series about a pig family; mock-ups from Crictor (the kind-hearted boa constrictor); and illustrations from Emile: The Helpful Octopus, including one that shows Emile playing underwater checkers with a diver in full scuba gear.
Absent from the exhibit were illustrations from Fornicon, his 1969 volume of erotica, featuring a disembodied penis being massaged by an elaborate pulley system.
Although Ungerer has worked for the French Ministry of Education, has his own museum in Strasbourg, and has several books on the required reading list of French elementary schools, the retrospective at the Carle, coincident with the artist's 80th birthday, is the first time a major American museum has officially recognized Ungerer's work for children.
After an hour of Riesling and chatter, the guests filed into the auditorium. Eric Carle mounted the stage to deliver his introductory remarks from behind a lectern decorated with illustrations from Carle's own classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
"Before we opened the museum here, I wrote to a handful of international illustrators," Carle began. "I wrote to Tomi, and he wrote back [that] he was allergic to America."
A FAIRYTALE ON TWO LEGS
Whenever Ungerer tells the story of his New York beginnings to reporters, he says the same thing: that he arrived in 1956 "with $60 in his pocket." By all accounts, he became an immediate success. He showed up, uninvited, to the offices of Harper & Brothers; they published his first book the following year.
"I'm a fairytale on two legs," he told me. "When I arrived, nobody cared where I came from. It was just like people had been waiting for me."
Ungerer had grown up in Nazi-occupied Alsace, reading American magazines and dreaming of Manhattan. The real thing did not disappoint. "New York gives me more energy than any spot imaginable. It's like visiting a battery," Ungerer said last week over the phone from the Midtown offices of his publisher, Phaidon. He was in town to be filmed for a documentary about his life.
Ungerer and the film crew visited all his old haunts, including his old studio on 42nd Street. He was amazed at all the changes. "The first house I bought was the Aaron Burr house in the Village," he said. "It's still there, but it changed color. I had it painted in pink. Everybody was upset — I think it was the only pink brownstone in New York. I had my pink period here. It was fabulous."