Hergé Museum - Museums Association

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HEAD: Tintin in Belgium
STANDFIRST: Laura Gascoigne explores the ongoing fascination with Tintin at the
Hergé Museum
DATE: 01.12.2009
AUTHOR: Laura Gascoigne
Over a 50-year career the Belgian artist Georges Rémi (1907-1983) – better known as
Hergé - produced 24 Tintin adventures and a vast additional oeuvre of other cartoon
strips, illustrations and advertising graphics. He never threw anything away. On his
death in 1983 he left an archive containing 20,000 documents, 14,000 original drawings
and 50,000 letters. A museum was obviously called for, but what sort of museum?
Would it commemorate Tintin or his creator? And could it satisfy both family audiences
and diehard fans?
Last June, answers to those questions were provided with the opening of the new Hergé
Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve. The museum is privately funded by Hergé’s widow Fanny
and her second husband Nick Rodwell, who immediately antagonised the media by
banning all photography at the launch. But the couple’s notoriously tight control of
Hergé’s legacy has produced a rather special museum.
Unable to find a suitable location in Hergé’s native Brussels, they chose an open site on
the wooded outskirts of the new university town of Louvain-la-Neuve, 30km south of the
capital. The museum stands at the edge of town on a street that does not officially exist:
Rue du Labrador 26 is an imaginary address from the Tintin adventure The Secrets of
the Unicorn. “For the first month the postman couldn’t find us,” says the communications
director Marcel Wilmet.
Designed by the French Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Porzamparc to
evoke Tintin’s many sea voyages, the building is ship-shaped. Raised on stilts and
accessed by a footbridge, it looks like a big white liner that has crashed on to rocks and
split, bow to stern, to let in the sky. But it also incorporates allusions to comic strips. The
façade is divided into two white “pages”, the left-hand page reproducing a vastly
enlarged frame from The Crab with the Golden Claws and the right-hand one signed
simply HERGÉ. In the place of portholes, the side elevations are punctured by double
rows of rectangular windows to resemble a comic strip.
Built in two years at a cost of €15m, the museum has 2,000 square metres of exhibition
space: eight permanent exhibition rooms on the first and second floors, plus a temporary
space on the ground floor. Inside the atrium, light streams down from the glass roof on to
four irregular blocks housing the galleries, which lean at dizzying angles over chasms.
Painted red, blue, yellow and green in the signature palette of the Tintin books, they are
decorated with what look like abstract marks but are actually hugely blown-up details of
Hergé’s backgrounds.
These four landmasses are criss-crossed on the first and second floor gallery levels by
footbridges, taking visitors out of the artificially-lit exhibition rooms into bright daylight, as
if on deck for a breath of air. Dominating the atrium is the central lift shaft, rising straight
as a mast beside the ticket desk. Its checkerboard paintwork recalls Professor
Calculus’s moon rocket, except in navy blue – Fanny Rodwell rejected the original red.
An artist herself – she was a colourist in the studio when she met Hergé – Fanny has
had a crucial input not just into the museum’s design but its ethos. She insisted on a
proper restaurant, Le Petit Vingtième, named after the conservative Catholic children’s
magazine which launched Tintin on the world in 1929. Visitors wanting something less
than a full meal can nip into town, grab one and be readmitted on the same ticket. “It’s a
real museum, it’s not Tintin World,” Marcel Wilmet told me between mouthfuls of seared
tuna. “This is Belgium.”
But the displays are designed with children in mind. Artworks are exhibited flat in
accessible glass cases over which adults have to lean and peer or sometimes, for close
viewing, get on their knees. This arrangement coincidentally solves the hanging
problems posed by the building’s defiantly non-cuboid gallery spaces, where walls are
concave, convex or slanting, never vertical. Another solution, adopted in two rooms, is
the display of drawings like sheet music on orchestra stands.
Although the exhibits are brought down to child level, the interpretation (in French and
English) is not. Much of the text consists of quotes from interviews with Hergé - the
language is simple but the references can be complex, such as when he compares the
role of Snowy to Sancho Panza. The audioguide – available in French, Dutch, German
and English, complete with sound effects and animations – is pitched at a younger
audience. I found the “Listen with Mother” tone of the English voiceover infuriating and
quickly switched off, so I can’t comment on the quality of the information.
Joost Swarte, the Dutch designer of the permanent exhibition, is also a strip cartoonist:
the tour’s winding course through rooms with adjoining walls painted in contrasting
colours has the feel of a comic strip, without stooping to anything so obvious as speech
bubbles.
The exhibition starts at the top of the lift shaft and works its way down (the museum’s
interior architect, Winston Spriet, has done the same thing with the new Magritte
Museum in Brussels). There are eight irregular shard-shaped rooms, four to a floor, with
themes following in roughly chronological order.
We start in Room 1, A Life’s Journey, with a timeline of key dates illustrated by artworks:
plate 1 of Tintin in the Land of Soviets marks the cartoon hero’s first appearance in
1929, while a sketch for the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art (1978-1982) marks his exit.
There are no facsimiles –Fanny insisted that all the works on display are originals, to be
rotated every four months. One whole wall is covered in pencil sketches. The artist’s
personal enthusiasms are also documented in glass cases scattered around the room at
oblique angles: cats, cars, the scout movement and modern art.
From here a footbridge crosses into Room 2, Man of Many Talents, which reveals
lesser-known aspects of Hergé’s graphic art. Draft posters of bathing belles on the
beach at Knocke, a woodcut illustration of the Virgin Mary for a Catholic children’s
devotional book, and a cover design for Le Boy-Scout Belge give little indication of the
imaginative genius unleashed in the Tintin stories. We are introduced to Quick and
Flupke and Jo, Zette and Jocko, characters from other forgotten cartoons. For context,
drawings are displayed on orchestra stands beside archive photographs.
The image of a pith-helmeted actor playing Tintin addressing a rally of fans from a
balcony at the launch of the now controversial Tintin in the Congo (1931) – recently
removed from the shelves of Brooklyn Public Library – warns us not to expect
engagement with issues of racism.
For visitors looking for Tintin World, the closest thing on offer is Family from the Drawing
Board in Room 3. Here individual cases devoted to each leading character trace their
evolution through a combination of published pages, inked plates and pencil sketches,
with explanatory labels laid out on coloured felt cushions. We chart changes in Captain
Haddock’s character from his first appearance in rough pencil sketches for The Crab
with the Golden Claws to his mature incarnation in the modern art adventure Tintin et
Alph-Art. The commentary is humorous but psychologically telling: the secret of
Haddock’s success as a character, we are told, is “an inspired balance between the
rough and gentle sides of his personality.”
A frame showing him giving an Arab insurgent a good spanking in The Land of Black
Gold would raise eyebrows today; you have to keep reminding yourself going round this
exhibition that we live in more sensitive times.
The next room, Cinema, is one of the most fascinating. Vintage movies screened
alongside pages from Tintin’s adventures show how much Hergé’s storyboards took
from contemporary film: we recognise costumes, props and entire action sequences. We
see what The Black Island (1938) owed to King Kong (1933) and The 39 Steps (1935),
and what King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939) borrowed from The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). A
label explains how even the Thompson Twins’ suits were modelled on the costumes of
Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy – if black could maintain its impact in grainy film stock, it
would work equally well in cartoon frames.
This room also explores the influence of current affairs, without going too closely into
details of the artist’s less-than-glorious war record, when his Tintin strips were published
in the German-controlled paper Le Soir. In the screening room next door, you can watch
the 1975 documentary Moi, Tintin in which the artist addresses some political issues. On
the way out, a paper chandelier of Tintin characters includes a further reminder of the
pitfalls awaiting the wartime cartoonist. In The Shooting Star (1942), Hergé gave the
plot’s evil financier Jewish features and the name Blumenstein. Accused of antiSemitism, he later changed the name to Bohlwinkel without realising that that was
Jewish too. Here the character is identified as Blumenstein-Bohlwinkel.
From Room 4 the lower galleries are only accessible via the stairs, unless you double
back to Room 1. In emulation of the ‘clear line’ for which Hergé was famous, the
museum’s design makes no concessions to convenience, or conveniences. The only
toilets are in the basement. For anyone caught short in mid-circuit, it’s not easy to find
the way back.
The staircase comes out in Room 6, Dreaming of Travel, which connects via a pair of
bridges with The Laboratory in Room 5. The order is unimportant as both rooms deal
with aspects of the same subject: research. To anyone who thought strip cartooning was
a bit of fun, this part of the museum is an education. Hergé was a stickler for accuracy.
In fact, it was the technological demands of Destination Moon (1952) that finally
convinced him – after a nervous breakdown – that he needed assistants, and led to the
foundation of Studios Hergé. A highlight of The Laboratory is the original 3-D model of
Professor Calculus’s pioneering moon rocket, cut away to reveal the painstakingly
furnished interior. The Professor beat NASA to the moon by 15 years. Footage of Neil
Armstrong’s moonwalk is relayed on a nearby monitor, with Hergé’s dedication of a book
to the astronaut: “By believing in his dreams, man turns them into reality”.
Hergé was not a traveller. As he explains in a text panel in Room 6, “I travel mostly by
proxy… via Tintin… as I have to be at my desk in order to draw.” A selection of the travel
guides he relied on is on display, the destinations becoming increasingly exotic as war
made Tintin’s adventures more escapist. A drawing of a Shanghai Street from The Blue
Lotus (1936) replicates a photo of a street in Peking almost banner for banner (though
Hergé doubtless ensured that the Chinese calligraphy fitted the scene).
The tall double-sided cases in this room are arranged in neat parallel lines as in a
traditional museum, but in Room 7 the low-level vitrines reappear, with artwork spread
over white tables inside. “I never wait for inspiration. I’m more of a grafter…” reads a
quote from Hergé on the wall, “a nine to five man”. This is the room dedicated to Studios
Hergé, with each specialist member of the team individually commemorated in a photo
portrait on an orchestra stand. The wall behind is papered in a huge photograph of the
studio interior, showing a row of artists – including Fanny – bent over their desks. In an
interview filmed in the same interior, Hergé describes his mailbag. It’s not all fan letters.
Children write in to point out his mistakes – “you put banana leaves on palm trees” – and
a scientist tells him an eclipse is upside down.
A large case along another wall displays objects from the studio: a pair of black bowler
hats and canes, an African carving, a spoof 18th-century portrait of Captain Haddock.
From above, a giant stuffed parrot rains down Haddockian curses. Another display case
holds examples of early merchandising, a story brought up to date in the shop
downstairs.
In the final room, Hergé Acclaimed, the spotlight turns from the team to the man himself.
Large black and white photographs of the photogenic artist with ever-present cigarette
(I’d like to see this in a UK museum) record the high points: Hergé on the roof of the
Bruxelles Midi building with the newly installed neon of Tintin and Snowy; the Dalai
Lama reading Tintin in Tibet.
Circling the wall above are quotes from distinguished admirers: “Tintin is my only
international rival,” acknowledges General de Gaulle. On a nearby wall hang three of the
four portraits of Hergé painted by Warhol to celebrate Tintin’s 50th birthday. On the way
out, a circular cubicle is papered with covers from a selection of the 102 foreign
language editions of the Tintin stories, with a soundtrack of local children’s voices
reading out the titles.
In the museum that bears his name, Hergé the man remains elusive, a charming,
shadowy figure with a cigarette whose presence is felt most strongly in his work. The
Hergé Museum may not be Tintin World, but neither is it an intimate portrait of the artist.
Steered to fruition by an industry insider, it is a museum of the strip cartoonists’ art as
exemplified by one of its greatest practitioners. As such, it offers a complete education in
the creation of a cartoon world. MP
Laura Gascoigne is a freelance arts journalist
Project data
Architect: Christian de Portzamparc
Budget: €15m
Interior architect: Winston Spriet
Exhibition designer: Joost Swarte
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