Known for his delightful series of picture books about the adventures of a family of anthropomorphic pigs called the Mellops, artist Tomi Ungerer is one of the best — as well as one of the most beloved, prolific and highly acclaimed — authors of children’s literature. His works, which include “The Three Robbers,” “Moon Man” and “Crictor,” have won numerous prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Yet, as Brad Bernstein’s excellent documentary “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story” notes, the artist is equally well known for an abiding fascination with a more grown-up form of visual storytelling. Many of the artist’s X-rated drawings — which combine an explicit eroticism with Ungerer’s familiar sense of whimsy and even surrealism — have been published in a parallel set of picture books with such decidedly grown-up titles as “Fornicon” and “Erotoscope.”
This gives rise to a question: How can two seemingly artistic opposites coexist in the same man?
After achieving almost instant success in the New York publishing world in the 1950s and ’60s — where, in addition to his children’s books, Ungerer drew satirical illustrations and political posters — the French immigrant eventually found himself running smack into the wall of American puritanism.
Shortly after Ungerer’s 1970 “Fornicon” came out, the artist was blacklisted, with many of his children’s books removed from libraries. In 1971, unable to work in the industry that had embraced him, Ungerer left New York, finally settling in Ireland after a sojourn of a few years in rural Nova Scotia. It would be almost 25 years before he tried his hand at a children’s book again.
“Far Out” tells that story, as well as many other equally fascinating ones.
For the most part, Bernstein lets Ungerer, still impish in his 80s, do the talking. Color commentary is contributed by such art-world friends as Jules Feiffer and the late Maurice Sendak, as well as by Ungerer’s daughter and others. As for the film’s subject, he’s a witty and voluble guide through what turns out to be an eventful life, beginning with a childhood in the Nazi-occupied border region of French Alsace, where the bilingual Ungerer was considered neither entirely German (by the Germans) nor entirely French (by the French).
It’s a while before the film even gets to Ungerer’s infamous troubles with American bluenoses, but you won’t be bored. Bernstein supplements Ungerer’s rich reminiscences with lots of great art, including some marvelous animations in which the artist appears to draw pictures in thin air.
Ungerer’s mastery of line is a marvelous thing, whether he’s applying it to his fictional pet boa constrictor (“Crictor”), his angry anti-war posters of the Vietnam era or his genuinely blush-inducing nudes.
If it initially seems hard to reconcile Ungerer’s “porno” work with his “kidso” work — as the author and critic Steven Heller amusingly characterizes the seemingly incompatible genres — Ungerer tries, up to a point.
The artist makes a good case that the two bodies of work are, in fact, connected. And it’s pretty clear that they share the same deep sense of absurdity nurtured in the artist’s youth. On one side, the playfulness of Ungerer’s erotica is matched by the sophistication — and, yes, even darkness — of his children’s books.
But Ungerer offers no apologies for his disparate artistic interests. Ultimately, he is unconcerned with accommodating the discomfort that some people might feel about an artist who is, if only on separate pages, in touch with both his libido and his inner child.
“I am full of contradictions,” Ungerer tells us, with a refreshing lack of shame, “and why shouldn’t I be?”
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, a brief drug reference and several graphically erotic drawings. In English, German and French with subtitles. 98 minutes.