Tomi Ungerer and his Sketchbook

img_1232“The mind, body, and society of men seem fragile containers for violent, centrifugal forces.” This is from the preface, written by Jonathan Miller, to The Underground Sketchbook of Tomi Ungerer. As Miller notes, it is in depicting this force that Ungerer seems to find such artistic potency. The book features drawings of people falling apart or being manipulated by loved ones as if they are but objects. Heads can be screwed off, bodies can be used as vacuums, lamps, yarn for a scarf in the shape of a face, or stitched together with a sewing machine. In these bits of mechanized violence, the inflictor, the aggressor, the woman, the man, all of them have faces empty of any real emotion – they hold the faces of blank indifference much like the manipulated object of a person that lies, sits, stands, beside them.

As Miller states, these drawings may be the result of Tomi Ungerer being a, “derivative of sixty years of modern mechanized warfare. He is the artistic offspring of Passchendaele, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Algeria.” But Ungerer is doing more than just pr oducing satire on violence. Instead, the way he depicts these forms of violence suggests something else. This is a parody of the body image. We love our bodies, but to inflict pain to what we hold so dear, is to have absolute power over it. This may take the form of a sadist or a masochist, but either way, the horror is that people are capable of such violence, and have already, for centuries, committed such actions of selfish power.

This was the first drawing I saw from the book. I loved it. I loved the line work, how it was able to capture the form of the man, his crooked shoulders, his hunched back, and his contemplative gaze, all with minimal line work. But before I even full realized the form of the drawing, I recognized the one bold black figure in the entirety of the drawing – the bomb and its lit fuse. There appears to be no rush to get rid of the explosive, instead, the man seems to be ready to die. He appears to be stroking the bomb, like a dear object. He holds it with care, as one might hold a wine glass in an incredibly pretentious way. There is no regret – only willingness.

I must admit, I can find no way to spin all of this in a positive light. Perhaps reading Ungerer’s work on children’s books might be the best course to retrieve some optimism. Or perhaps walk away from Ungerer all together. But I’d suggest that that is not the way. I cannot tell you that I relate to where Ungerer is coming from. I’ve never experience war, never been in close proximity, I’ve only gained faint images from the stories my grandpa told me. Even those are not graphic by any means. Perhaps the most haunting bit of war cinema I’ve seen was the John Huston documentary Let There Be Light. However, even that film, with images of soldiers back from the war, physically intact yet mentally broken, will never allow me to get into their headspace fully. So in this particular situation, looking at these drawings by Ungerer, why do I find myself returning to these drawings?

When a child purposely steps on an ant, they may be indifferent to the ant’s pain; however, there is something besides indifference that is present – playfulness. Ungerer is filled to the brim with a playful vigor in the face of horror. It makes me think, whether or not playfulness is that far removed from indifference, or even, being unaware.
However, perhaps there is a victory that can be discovered, in treading the lines of indifferent violence, and finding humor in it. After all, comedy is formed out of tragedy. We just need, to dive into the grave, and emerge with a bone to chew on.


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