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In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Tomi Ungerer Retrospective Strikes a Poignant Note

The first U.S. retrospective of the French cartoonist Tomi Ungerer arrived with eerie timing, only a week after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Despite this, and the cold that took over New York City that evening, the opening for “Tomi Ungerer: All in One” on January 14th at The Drawing Center brought a lively crowd eager to celebrate the dynamic and prolific artist.

The opening was filled with a warm sense of solidarity and support for peace, humor, and freedom of speech, not only across the exhibition space—where Ungerer was also present, cheerfully greeting friends and admirers—but also in the sketches, prints, and posters on view.  Alongside his successful career as an illustrator for children’s books such as The Three Robbers (1961), or more recently Fog Island (2013), Ungerer has created politically charged works addressing human rights issues around world events from the Vietnam War to freedom of press for Reporters without Borders. Despite employing the same bold colors and graphics he uses to create playful and imaginative characters for younger audiences, Ungerer’s unapologetic, even crude, pictures—a blindfolded and muffled reporter in No Freedom without Freedom of the Press (1962), or an army pilot painting figures of crying Vietnamese children on his plane in Choice Not Chance (1967)—speak to Ungerer’s audacity and his values, honoring integrity over prudence.

The most striking aspect of the show is the variety of Ungerer’s drawings, and how he swiftly shifts between themes, from humor to erotica and tragedy. In the downstairs gallery, clips from Ungerer’s animated films bring to life the imaginative characters from his children’s books. Just above, in a closed-off section of the first-floor galleries, is an enclave of drawings of dominatrix women Ungerer met while living in Hamburg, Germany. Once considered controversial in an artist’s oeuvre that also includes children’s imagery, these portraits demonstrate Ungerer’s incredible skill as a draftsman, and call to mind the sensual and intimate drawings of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas

In his series for Symptomatics, vignette images from a waiting room pamphlet are both endearing and accurate in their depictions of symptoms for clinical depression. In one drawing, a lone businessman despondently looks up at the never-ending staircase he must climb, with each step growing steeper and higher than the last. The illustration is simple but Ungerer’s message is on point.

The success of Ungerer’s works are in large part due to their immediacy and pure economy of line and color. The artist attributes this to Saul Steinberg, the famous illustrator for The New Yorker, who taught Ungerer “how to rationalize, how to distill an idea, to turn it, thanks to a maximum economy of the gesture, to express the essential.” In his remarkably spare drawings from The Underground Sketchbook (1964), Ungerer addresses the sinister realities of the modern world, from meaningless violence to depression. In one untitled drawing, a skeletal figure snaps a picture of an enormous bombing taking place in a distant and empty landscape. In another untitled piece, Ungerer renders a poignant sketch of friendship illustrated by one figure supporting the weight of his friend listlessly seated next to him.

Without question, no other work is more solemn and arresting than Liberté Crucifée, which Ungerer created just days after the Paris shootings. In this bold monochromatic portrait of Lady Liberty, the only pop of color is the bright red blood that trickles down from her right hand, which is nailed to a cross, while her left hand tightly clutches her tabula ansata. Citing one of the most universal scenes of grief and suffering in art history, Ungerer’s crucifixion scene declares the sanctity of freedom of expression. While spurred by the recent tragic events, this work, reminiscent of Ungerer’s earlier posters from the 1960s, reminds us of this given and natural right. For this very reason, Ungerer’s bold and candid pictures are all the more necessary and valuable to us today. 

Tomi Ungerer: All in One” is on view at The Drawing Center, New York, Jan. 16–Mar. 22, 2015.

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