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drawn to the dark side

Born into the 'anxiety and anger' of WWII, Tomi Ungerer still suffers horrifying nightmares. Yet Strasburg's native artist-hero shows in his ever-growing oeuvre that dark subject matter can be reinvented, even for children by deborah singmaster.

A Strasburg taxi driver will tell you that the two things worth seeing in the city are the cathedral and Tomi Ungerer. Graphic artist, writer, sculptor, inventor, campaigner, Ungerer is a man of prodigious talents and creative energy. He made his name in New York in the 1960s, contributing cartoons to the New Yorker and designing posters that summed up the era - The New York Times ('You can tell the adults by the paper they read'), Kent Cigarettes (the pickpocketing telescopic arm) and savage anti-war posters. At the same time, books began to roll off the press: cartoon collections, children's books, illustrated works; he now has more than 130 books to his name. He has won numerous awards and a major retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Paris in 1981 - but it is difficult to acquire an original work. 'I don't sell in galleries,' he says, 'I don't have to. I'd rather stock up my work or give it away. I'm engaged in lots of things like aids, Caritas, Amnesty International, unicef. A good part of my time is spent fund-raising.'

By the end of the 1960s, Ungerer had finished with New York. 'The Sixties were over and the drugs came in,' he says. He and his wife went to live in the wilds of Nova Scotia. He wrote a lyrical account of this time in Far Out Isn't Far Enough, illustrated with tender drawings of wildlife and the bleak Canadian scenery. Two years later, in 1976, the Ungerers moved to Ireland and started farming in County Cork, where they have brought up their three children. They live in Ireland for two-thirds of the year, and spend the rest of the time, when not travelling, in the family home in Strasburg, designed by Ungerer's father.

Tomi Ungerer was born in Strasburg in 1931, the youngest of four children; his father ran the family-owned factory which produced astronomical clocks; he died when Tomi was three. During the German Occupation the family moved to Colmar, a suburb of Strasburg. Ungerer describes his war years in Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, published in 1998 and illustrated with his childhood drawings in addition to a remarkable and disturbing collection of Nazi propaganda ephemera.

Ungerer's daily journey to high school took him past the museum containing Grunewald's masterpiece, 'The Isenheim Altarpeice', - 'the most important work of art in my life'. Ungerer has ascribed his life-long fascination with the macabre tothe Second World War and to this sixteenth-century painting with its realistic crucifixion and nightmarish depiction of the temptations of St Anthony. But the macabre, he feels, is simply part of his nature: 'I was born with anxiety and anger and I turned all this into my books. I don't need a psychiatrist, because I put everything into my books.' Is he any less anxious now? 'No, more so. Every night, nightmares. It's like a horror movie.'

The lighter side of Ungerer is to be found in his children's books, and his collages which combine drawing/wash with photography, as in the recent series of 12 post cards illustrating fsb's range of door furniture, distributed in the uk by Allgood. He perfected the technique in early collections such as Horrible and Schnipp Schnapp; it's a technique that he loves.

Ungerer keeps his fax machine in the cellar and says he hates to be near a computer; it's not that he has a horror of machines, 'on the contrary, if you look in my Fornicon ... .' He mentions his celebrationof Heath Robinson erotica, published in 1970. 'That's machines. I am a very good mechanic. I have my anvil, my smithy, my lathe. I have made extra parts for my tractor. I am an artisan ... but I don't like machines to overtake my life.'

Ungerer leads a hectic life. He has just created a European Institute for Yiddish Studies in Strasburg, and he is warm in his praise of his city. 'Strasburg's budget for culture is one third of its whole city budget. When somebody comes to me with an initiative, the town gives me a building; I created the institute within seven months. If you wanted to create an institute anywhere else, you could calculate on waiting years.'

There is already a Tomi Ungerer Centre in Strasburg, and soon he will be given the use of the existing Museum of Modern Art, when the collection moves to a new building. It will house more than 8000 of Ungerer's drawings and other bequests. He has designed a monument for Strasburg 2000; he has just completed a labyrinth; and he is working on a design for a kindergarten in Karlsruhe: 'It's designed in the shape of a cat and the kids can slide from the first floor down the tail and they can go through the mouth, it's a bit like a Sphinx.' There is also an exhibition of doors in Berlin, symbolising the coming together of France and Germany. 'One of the door handles is a tap; to fill the sink you have to open the door. The sink is in the German colours, the tap has French colours.' There are many more playful variations on this theme, including a tiny cat-flap door for the people of Alsace, on the border between the two countries.

Farming has damaged Ungerer's back (although he says it is improving). 'I can go back to sculpture, which I have been missing, and I can move again - so I can do big drawings. They were getting smaller and smaller.' There are more books in the pipeline. 'This fall there's a book coming out in France of my aphorisms, there's a book about my father, and there's a very erotic book of collage; then there's a new children's book called The Blue Cloud ...'

There appears to be no danger of Strasburg's greatest living monument slowing down or mellowing. As long as he can wield a pen, the complex genius of Tomi Ungerer will continue to delight and shock.

The AJ will be giving away a series of postcards designed by Tomi Ungerer for Allgood over the next six weeks, starting from this week

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