The art of
deviation

The totally
far out
tale of
Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer,
Fornicon, planche
extraite du portfolio,
Rhinoceros Press,
1969
Collection musée
tom iungerer–
centre international
de l’illustration,
strasbourg
©diogenes verlag ag
zürich \ tomi ungerer
photo: musées de la
ville de strasbourg/
mathieu bertola
Defining the oeuvre of Tomi ungerer presents a challenge: he is an artist provocateur with sharp sense of satire and strong political overtones in his work. A witty aphorist. A deranged scribbler of hyper-sexual images. And he’s particularly known for his extremely popular children's books.

Ungerer hard at work in his studio. From looking at the initial lines on the page it’s hard to guess what he’s going to draw — a children's picture or a hellish sex-machine.

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Ungerer was (and still is) a wild, crazy libertine. He represented all that was decadent and over-the-top about the 60s, including the sexual revolution and the more widespread acceptance of radical ideas. Having carved out a career for himself as a very successful children’s book illustrator, the French native proceeded to scandalize the publishing world by releasing a series of volumes of dark pornographic images with sadomasochistic themes. The Fornicon (1970) was a series of shocking, yet comic depictions of people engaging with hardcore, penetrating sexual S&M machinery. Ungerer stated that that some of the inspiration had come from his own experiences in the S&M scene in NYC.

Some impressively modified vintage hair dryers being put through their paces!

Some impressively modified vintage hair dryers being put through their paces!

However Ungerer stated that there was social commentary in Fornicon — it was a form of satire, and intended to look like a medical handbook or a ‘how-to’ guide: “I was showing the clinical aspect of lovemaking at the time, which was being mechanized. I was struck at the time — it was the ’60s — by how in America one book came out after another about how to do it.” He goes on to say: “It was a rebellion against a mechanization of our lives, not only of sex. We live in a world that’s completely ruled by machines.”

A lucky lady strapped into an outlandish wind-up mechanism that seems part toy, part gym machine.

© Diogenes verlag ag
Zürich \ Tomi Ungerer
photo : Muséesdela
ville de strasbourg /
M. Bernhart

A lucky lady strapped into an outlandish wind-up mechanism that seems part toy, part gym machine.

Other compilations published by Ungerer include his book Totempole, which also used sadomasochism’s external devices and scenarios, but he states it was based on his own, more personal experiences.
Ungerer also came under fire for the perceived misogyny in his graphic sexual works — after all, the feminist movement was a strong presence in society at the time he was publishing, and works such as The Fornicon seemed emblematic of the male patriarchy. However he states that his intentions were quite different:“I was very misunderstood in those days. I was definitely part of the sexual revolution. The things I used to say are normal now. I was always more interested in the woman than in myself. I was fascinated by women’s fantasies. For me, eroticism was always about staging a fantasy according to the partner’s taste. It is really even-steven. Women have a right to sexual fantasies just as men have.”

You can see this type of object in reality, but, unfortunately, not in such a cunningly constructed way.

You can see this type of object in reality, but, unfortunately, not in such a cunningly constructed way.

Ungerer was blacklisted in the 1960s when word of his graphic images hit the children's literature circuit. In particular, his children’s books were banned from public libraries and no longer sold in the US. His reaction was characteristically brash. Whilst speaking at a children’s literature conference he famously declared: “If people didn't fuck, you wouldn't have any children, and without children, you'd be out of work.”
Many of Ungerer’s books for children were also controversial — he was very much of the opinion that children do need not be coddled or 'protected' by adults from the realities of life. We might say that Ungerer's books respect children by not shielding them from some truths. A good example of this is his frog kama sutra, which horrified Americans, but was differently received in less conservative environments: “In Europe, I have absolutely no problem. I did an erotic book based on the Kama Sutra, but instead of human beings, the positions are taken up by frogs. People come up to me and say, ‘I was brought up with you. I was 13 years old, and I saved up money to buy your Kama Sutra.’”

It’s impossible to imagine a person achieving an erection using such a frightening machine, so let’s just assume that what we see here is a disembodied penis from the the other article.

In the 60s, the liberalism that appeared in society allowed a flourishing of ideas — many of which we would never deign to discuss today. Ungerer’s career represents a bygone era and the revolutionary potential of children’s books, plus his examinations of eroticism, pleasure and the joy of life served as a symbol of the power of alternative thought. As Ungerer himself stated, “eroticism is a safari”. If we are able to ‘travel’ though his erotic work without focusing on its controversial nature, we might notice that it is very nuanced. Ungerer’s career and works have indeed shown us that deviation is an art form.

A whole range of mechanisms with wires, ropes, wheels with gears also inhabit Ungerer’s children's books. Enjoy!

A whole range of mechanisms with wires, ropes, wheels with gears also inhabit Ungerer’s children's books. Enjoy!

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