by Glen Herbert
Tomi Ungerer is an illustrator famous, first, for revolutionizing children’s book illustration. Maurice Sendak, for one, says that “Where the Wild Things Are” would never have been had it not been for the inspiration that came from Ungerer’s work. The problem, at least as some people perceived it, is that Ungerer also did adult illustration, much like some people make adult film. Erotic, challenging, strange–just the kinds of things that people get concerned about, especially when created by a beloved children’s book author and illustrator. He was subsequently reviled, though when he talks about it today, he still seems a bit confused about it all. He was an adult, after all, and adults have sex, and think about sex, and politics, and life. We don’t have kids without sex, though we seem to feel the need to compartmentalize them. It wasn’t that he tried to put erotica in front of children. He was drawing for one audience and then, another day, drawing for a different one. Just as parents both care for children, and respond to their needs, and then later, you know, swear, and fight, and have fantasies of their own.
Why do we require that children’s illustrators, or authors, or performers be childlike themselves? Why do we suppose that they can’t have adult lives, living as adults, just as the rest of us do? That’s a question that Ungerer has lived with, though he’s not alone in that. Paul Reubens likely spent a lot of time pondering that question, too. Says Ungerer, “As I look back, as I say, my life has been a fairy tale, [complete] with all its monsters. I think we have all kinds of characters within ourselves. And sometimes the most important characters we have within ourselves are our demons. It’s very important to know one’s demons.” We do have all kinds of characters within ourselves, though I’m not sure Ungerer has demons, or at least he hasn’t demonstrated that he does. Had he been illustrating exclusively in an adult context, I suspect that we’d love him as we love Ralph Steadman. It’s not demons, it’s life; life by its very nature is complicated and messy. (Well, for some people it’s demons. Like Jimmy Savile.)
But apart from all of that is a drawing that Ungerer does in order to show how much emotion our eyes can communicate. You don’t have to be a great artist, or an artist at all, to do this. The response from kids–I’ve done this with mine and others–is immediate, unmitigated delight. Adults, actually, love it too. Like me.
First, burn two holes in a piece of paper with your cigarette. (Or, do what I did, which is soak two spots of the paper with water and push the pulp through in order to make the two holes.)
Then draw a face, using those two holes as eyes.
Then, move pages in order to adjust the position of the pupils. Says Ungerer, “It’s just so simple. You can get every expression possible just with the eyes. Just with two points. And just by moving it around it can look sad, questioning, curious.”
Just like us, there are lots of characters inside this drawing: doubt, certainty, confusion, confidence, worry, wonder. Also just like us, its eyes, for good or bad, give it away.