Others Include Magritte and Brel

TINTIN: Hergé’s Masterpiece/The Mysteries of Marlinspike Hall (Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, 12 November 2015-31 January 2016)

photoToward the end of this exhibition is a photograph of Hergé and Andy Warhol.

One of them is an artist. The other one worked in reproductions.

Ah, but which is which?

I remember the large format Tintin books from my junior school, back in the day before graphic novels were a thing — but I don’t recall reading any. I must have done. Nothing stuck. There were cartoons, too, right? HERGÉ’S ADVENTUUUUUUUUUUUURES OF TINTIN. Oddly enough, I did read the book on Tintin by Tom McCarthy.

A few years ago, my local Waterstone’s — one of them, the one which produces authors — had a boxset of all twenty-four volumes in a medium format in a slip case at a daft price, but one which was clearly cheaper than buying twenty-four individual titles. All or nothing. And then, several months before the film, they reduced it considerably. So I bought it with the intention of reading them before so the film. I didn’t read them. I didn’t see the film.

And so when there was news of an exhibition at Somerset House, I thought that was an excuse, but I’ve still only read about five. I’ll go back now and work through. Tintin appears to be a journalist, although I’ve yet to see him file a story. There seems to be a pattern of receiving a telegram or travelling to another country and running into men with guns, and an encounter with the local police who throw him in prison thanks to the villains misleading them. Captain Haddock may turn up and the identical (non?)twins Thompson and Thomson and chaos ensues before Tintin unveils the criminals. Snowy, his dog, does the full Timmy’s-down-the-mineshaft business, but nobody listens to him.

photo (1)Hergé was born Georges Remi in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1907, so he would have been seven when the Germans invaded and devastated the country. He went to a Catholic school and excelled, although not apparently in art. More significantly, he joined the scouts, and started drawing a strip, Totor for a scouting magazine. The moral code, the respect for authority and the doing a good deed every day — along, perhaps, with Catholicism — feeds into Tintin. Hergé had found work with a Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle, and was invited to draw a weekly strip for its children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième from 1929.

The new technologies of the age — electricity, cars, gramophones, telephones and cinema all contribute to the strips, with Hergé apparently taking inspiration from early cinema as much as earlier comics. Among the latter we must presumably include Benjamin Rabier’s Tintin Lutin. Hergé aspires to realism; he did a lot of research on the Destination Moon (1950/1953) and Explorers on the Moon (1952-3/1954), getting the rocketry as right as was possible then. (The former predates George Pál’s film as far as I can see, assuming Objectif Lune appeared in the serialisation.) On the other hand, the action twisting action, Tintin’s survival and the constant defeat of criminals stretches credulity. Hergé has very basic ligne clair (clear line) which is nonetheless efficient.

The initial strips — Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-30/1930, Tintin in the Congo (1930-31/1931) and Tintin in America (1931-32/1932) — have a crude, conservative, xenophobic, not to say racist feel, and it’s worth remembering that Belgium was a colonial power in Africa. (See, say, Heart of Darkness.) However, on becoming friends with Zhang Chongren in 1934, he started doing more research into the background locations of his adventures, beginning with The Blue Lotus (1935-36/1936). The exhibition calls him Chang — minus his personal name — and calls him Hergé’s “spiritual guide”, which brought me up short. As I read on, I am going to have to be aware of the degree to which Hergé avoids xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the Nazis rose to power and invaded and occupied Belgium, closing Le Vingtième Siècle; Tintin continued in the Nazi-controlled Le Soir and I’ve vague memories of where Hergé was politically. McCarthy must have discussed this in his book. This is presumably at the same time as Paul de Man’s work for the same paper? There is clearly the risk of an appearance of collaboration on Hergé’s part. After the closure of Le Soir, he established his own magazine with Raymond Leblanc, a resistance fighter.

The exhibition mostly consisted of black and white panels from the original stories, mostly minus the dialogue. These were described as facsimiles — but I wasn’t clear whether this meant modern copies of the archive or these had been made in the production process. There were also small photographs — some I suspect photocopies, not all clearly labelled. And then in each room there is either a vitrine containing a three dimensional recreation of a frame from the strips or a model — Marlinspike Hall or Tintin’s flat. On the side wall were further reproductions, as well as on the windows and in fireplaces. Information boards included scans.

As scanning and printing technology has improved, I’ve noticed more and more use of facsimiles in exhibitions. Does it matter that they are copies? Am I fetishising the original with its aura of labour — Hergé’s steps in putting a strip together? Tintin was mass produced — in newspapers, in collections — and so the hand of the artist is lost in what we’ve seen. Should it be brought back? In an interview, Hergé said that not only did he have fun, he was paid to do it. And that photo of a meeting with Warhol — he of the Campbell Soup and Brillo Pads and silkscreens and chat shows as art — is telling.

I don’t think there were any examples on show, but apparently Hergé embraced abstract art in later life. In 1976 he bought a Calder mobile — coincidentally there is a show of that artist’s work at Tate Modern. There’s much more to be said about Hergé, I suspect; I seduced myself into buying the book, so no doubt I will say more.

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