Suitable for Children

John Haber
in New York City

Tomi Ungerer and Natalie Frank

Three hardened criminals find a new life, reformed by the grace of an orphan girl. The man in the moon descends to earth, enticed by its bustling humanity, before reassuming his gleaming place in the night sky, "forever after curled up in his seat."

Tomi Ungerer, who told those stories and more, could have been merely a darn good source of children's books, but for one thing: "I feel fear, fear of life." Growing up in Nazi-occupied France, he had every reason to fear. He arrived at Harper & Brothers, the New York publisher, burdened by illness and despair. He found a warm welcome and a receptive editor, but in barely a decade he was once again on the move, to still lonelier climates and a place for his art. Even there, he cannot stop looking back to the things he feared—and, as a postscript, Natalie Frank finds the grim and shining sides of the Brothers Grimm. Natalie Frank's Cinderella II (Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2011–2014)

As ever with Ungerer, things are complicated. He really did write and illustrate fondly remembered children's books, including The Three Robbers in 1961 and Moon Man in 1966. He also created indelible emblems for the left and for a grown-up self-awareness, with ads for Evergreen, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. As the last reads, "You can tell the adults by the paper they read," but you can truly tell the adults by what they read as children and by the art they rediscover now. Adults will find that he created much else as well. For "All in One," Ungerer fills all three galleries of the Drawing Center, curated by Claire Gilman, with political art, commercial art, confessions, eroticism, and landscape from childhood to today.

Telling the adults

Things were complicated well before Tomi Ungerer set aside children's books for artist books, but then really good children's books since at least Lewis Carroll are always more complicated. Not just a face, but a whole pale body curls up in the pale moon. On earth, Moon Man finds himself in shackles, his only hope in reaching through prison bars for the moon. He chances on joy in a garden party, but a rich woman calls to complain at the noise or the common lot, and again he is on the run from soldiers and police, reaching safety only in the formidable castle of an aging madman or dreamer. The genius invites the lonely refugee to take his place on a rocket to the moon—and Moon Man, "who realized he could never live peaceably on this planet, agreed to go." As soon as the moon wanes to a crescent slim enough to fit into the rocket's awkward entry, he is gone.

Complicated? The three robbers wear hoods like the Ku Klux Klan, but in black. That could make them the antithesis of racists, fascists, and murderers, and Ungerer revels in their rebellion. Yet it also darkens them, huddled tightly against the blue field of a somber sky. One can almost overlook the color, though, in drawings and book art that bend over backward to stay sketchy indeed. The basement "lab" at the Drawing Center projects books from the early 1970s, as animated by Gene Deitch—and the restoration of voice, music, and vivid colors may take visitors by surprise.

Even more unexpected, within just a few years of Moon Man, the G-rated author dares an X-rating. In the Center's back "drawing room," two series describe a woman's bondage and a dominatrix, as Totempole and Guardian Angels of Hell. Do they convey empathy for illicit thrills or a protest against human traffic? One thing for sure: they are neither unequivocally feminist nor complacent. Ungerer speaks of liberating fantasies as bringing an end to pornography, and he says that the woman in bondage came to him asking to be someone's sex slave. Yet no one displays the least signs of pleasure and, sleepless, "women object."

Looking for a way through the complications? Maybe start here. "We have a lot of sick people in the world and we have to acknowledge them," Ungerer argues. "Who does the job?" Apparently, his art. Apparently, too, it is never politically correct but always political.

One can see politics as implicit in the children's books as well—and not just with the Klan. Moon Man has its visionaries, as heroes and victims, with wealth and the authorities reporting to wealth as its villains. The title character of The Hat begins its life on a rich man's head. Like the robbers, Ungerer conveys mixed messages even while thinking maybe a bit too hard in black and white. The power of his art turns on both, especially when they get in one another's way. In more than one way, he is always telling the adults.

He started telling them (and telling them off) early at that—even before, like Arshile Gorky and so many others, taking refuge alone in America between divisive wars. Picture him in 1941 drawing a Jew and a Nazi rally, only try to remember that this is his fourth-form notebook, and he is only ten. He is sketching outright murder while still a child. Let it sink in, for all the warmth of his 1944 tribute to his mother's cooking, that the Nazis had made Mother's Day an official holiday in support of family values. He earned complaints from women with his first children's book, not unreasonably, for a mother devoted to serving much the same meal while the men run free, but he also knew left from right. Later, in 1994, he will illustrate anger at European immigration and integration as Pig Heil!

Recovering childhood

He still finding his rebellion and his style in that first book, The Mellops Go Flying of 1957. The father pig is dressed as, one might say, a fat cat as he plans the troop's adventures. They are the good guys, up to a point—but remember what a pig came to mean within a decade, in the turmoil and protests of the Vietnam War. One can see the roots of an artist who cannot help biting the hand that feeds him. For The Voice in 1968, he illustrates Expect the Unexpected, but the unexpected may be a mugging. In his 1965 posters for The Times, "people with assets" might be camels, and "people who remember" might be tied up in knots.

He described his Underground Sketchbook from those same turbulent years as "fables for adults." They imagine an antiwar march with coffins and a war medal hung beside toilet paper. They imagine care packages falling amid the bombs, with the title Give. They imagine black power turning white power upside-down. They imagine, too, Lady Liberty swallowed whole, with the title Eat. Ungerer pictures her again waving goodbye in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo murders, hands pierced and bloodied by her crucifixion.

He keeps at a second career in advertising—for Swissair, Kent cigarettes, the New York State lottery, Aqueduct raceway, and the Ice Capades. Yet it sours him on New York, and he leaves for Nova Scotia in 1971. from Tomi Ungerer's The Three Robbers (Drawing Center, 1961)Canada for him is both gorgeous and rough, a place of sought-after isolation, but isolation all the same. The sun touches the horizon in a gorgeous blue night, but almost cut off by a dark, bare rock. Washes bring out quaint wood turrets where "wisdom has built her house" in abandonment, while power lines coil in desolation, and gas lines snake limply from a diesel pump. No parking, please.

Ever the outsider, no wonder he flees again in 1976, this time for Ireland, and no wonder he still cannot find relief. The godless pray to Mickey Mouse on the cross, and hands press up against a forehead wrinkled by brows or brains. They are Waiting for Something to Happen (But What?) Memories of war persist in After the Bombing, with a teacher as puppet master and tears over a skeleton. Fear of Feelings includes a woman wrapped up in anxiety, a floor's upheaval, and a man weighed down by suitcases like turnstiles. Like him, Ungerer still needs money.

He returns to advertising, with all the oddity of an American in Ireland born in Strasbourg and connected to firms in one European nation by an ad agency in another. Not that he has become any more servile. For a French canning firm, he shows a turkey basting itself from an open can and a pig raised for death. He illustrates The Great Song Book of German folk traditions, but with soldiers hiding in the undergrowth and crosses in the snow. Yet he also finds a place for rainbows. The arc of one completes the dial of perhaps a stress meter, while another blankets a couple in bed, with little else to protect them from the full moon, an undraped window, and a cold night.

Does Ungerer speak for adults or for children, for his politics or for his fears? In The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear from 1999, the bear looks mostly confused, haunted by his own shadow. Otto is separated from his German Jewish owner and lands in a war zone, where the woman who saves him takes such glee in sewing him back together that one could mistake her act for torture. "I was on display," as if the artist himself were speaking. He still finds beauty in desolation and sunlight in the west, for Fog Island in 2013, only this time he calls it a children's book. Adulthood will not come easily, but recovering childhood may be hardest of all.

Brighter and grimmer

Do fairy tales make you think of something magical or something grim? Natalie Frank makes them both ever so colorful and glowing, but also treacherous and wild. For three years she has illustrated the Brothers Grimm, starting in 2011. The sheets, all twenty by thirty inches, unfold like a single narrative that Walt Disney never knew. Much of it takes place indoors, where bodies lie asleep, eyes blaze, and blond curls flow. It is a wild ride.

In truth, Disney's sanitizing of childhood has taken a beaten for some time, creative and popular as his legacy remains. Culture now has its share of wizards, zombies, warlords, and werewolves. Only recently at the Drawing Center, Ungerer laid out his childhood memories featuring the Holocaust, along with actual children's books featuring darkly hooded thieves. All the genre requires is a reasonably happy ending, and the Brothers Grimm came close to defying even that. The girl who escapes her father's lust ends up marrying him. Hansel and Gretel return home only for their mother to expose them again further in the woods, and they get to boil their captor alive.

The Center follows Ungerer with twenty-five of Frank's illustrations, exactly a third. Now barely two years into its site in Soho, its original expansion plans a casualty of Ground Zero, it must know the treacherous path to adulthood. It also supplies laminated copies of the tales, although they are hardly short or easy to digest. (One can read more online at home, since the early to mid-nineteenth century, again unlike Disney, is public domain.) Still, one will recognize at least a few characters—and one will recognize, too, the wild light in their eyes. So what if one eye is bright, one is dark, and they point in different ways?

The tales contain more characters than one remembers, because, as in Sigmund Freud or Nathalie Djurberg, so does a dream. Faces transform into wolves, wild pigs, or donkeys. A jack-in-the-box pops suddenly, its scaly folds beside an actual grasshopper. A brown profile emerges out of a pink, wistful smile. A body lies in a cupboard and a picture within a picture. Cinderella is both a sexpot and a girl.

The intricate bestiary has a passing resemblance to Islamic art. Compositions also share its literacy and skewed geometries. Up closer, though, they derive from gouache and chalk pastel on paper. Its stubbly texture heightens the colors. It also corresponds to the coarseness of the tales. If Frank runs most to reds and yellows, they have to stand for the temptations of apples and long blond hair.

She draws one broad stroke through another in taut, sweeping curves. They are fun to follow but hardly reassuring. They never could be, given bare breasts and a sexual assault. The seven dwarfs crowd in on Snow White on what seems her deathbed. One of them wears a mask as in an emergency room. Maybe the artist herself is still finding maturity in her thirties, but for now she still has a grown child's sense of urgency.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Tomi Ungerer ran at the Drawing Center through March 22, 2015, Natalie Frank in the Center's drawing room through June 28.

 

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