It’s an old parlor game: Can you name 10
famous Belgians? Belgium is a tiny nation, and often the butt of its neighbors’ jokes, but it can claim two 20th-century artistic giants who would make it onto that list: Hergé or at least his globetrotting comic strip character Tintin and René Magritte, the subversive surrealist painter. Both created iconic images that are recognizable the world over. And now both, finally, have museums celebrating their contributions to art.
On June 2 two museums will open in Belgium, dedicated to the lives and art of Hergé and Magritte. As the museums explore the bold innovations and ideas that show up in the artists’ work studying their impact and influence across the world they also reveal the contrasting outlooks the two men had in their parallel lives.
Situated in Louvain-La-Neuve, a new town some 20 miles east of Brussels, the Hergé Museum is a stunning piece of architecture. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc, its sleek concrete, steel and glass form makes it look like a stranded ocean liner, an image that deliberately echoes Tintin’s many maritime exploits. Built at a cost of $20 million, and financed by Hergé’s second wife Fanny, the museum reflects Hergé’s huge corpus of work which has, until now, been sitting in studios and bank vaults.
Hergé’s real name was Georges Remi; his pseudonym comes from the French pronunciation of his inverted initials, RG. He was just 21 when he created Tintin, who made his debut in January 1929 in the children’s newspaper Le Petit Vingtième. The comic strip was an instant success. Readers lapped up the stories of Tintin’s adventures, which Hergé filled with quick wit and rich personalities. They were illustrated in a style that Hergé perfected called ligne claire, or clear line: simple lines of almost uniform thickness, with no shading. That technique, which created an uncluttered image with robust, universal elements, impacted on cartoonists that followed, such as Asterix creators Goscinny and Uderzo and the Smurfs’ Peyo. And Pop Art stars Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein recognized Hergé as an influence on the Pop-Art movement in the U.S. the museum has three portraits of Hergé painted by Warhol, who once said that the Belgian artist “influenced my work as much as Disney.” Since Hergé first drew his quiffed hero, about 230 million Tintin comic books have sold around the world, translated into more than 80 languages. And now Hollywood has got its hands on him, with Steven Spielberg producing a Tintin movie trilogy in 3D.
Hergé rarely traveled to the far-flung places he described so vividly in stories such as Tintin in Tibet and Tintin in the Congo. But he researched fastidiously, and the museum displays some of the 30,000 cuttings from magazines and newspapers that he hoarded over the years. In one of the eight themed galleries, original artwork is displayed alongside photos of speeding cars, royal palaces and African witch doctors, which Hergé used for references and inspiration. “He had a forensic dedication to accuracy,” says Nick Rodwell, head of Moulinsart, the organization that runs Hergé’s estate. “It gave his stories that extra authenticity, making them realistic as well as visually elegant.”
There is also a gallery devoted to the science of Tintin, with scale models of cartoon inventions like Professor Calculus’s glorious red-and-white moon rocket; another holds examples of imaginative merchandising that Hergé himself oversaw. Together, the displays are a testament to what Michael Farr, author of Tintin: The Complete Companion, describes as Tintin’s timeless appeal: “Tintin is universal. He transcends fashion, age and nationality. These are classic, inexhaustible stories, beautifully drawn, beautifully written.”
Tintin fans will rejoice in finally having a permanent tribute to Hergé’s creation. Likewise, the new Magritte Museum in Brussels was long overdue says Charly Herscovici, head of the Magritte Foundation: “Brussels needs a Magritte museum just like Paris has a Picasso museum in Paris and Amsterdam a Van Gogh museum.” Housed in the prim, neo-classical Hotel Altenloh near the Royal Palace, the museum is part of the complex of buildings that comprise Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Art. But the setting is deceptively staid: echoing the artist’s mischievous streak, the museum’s windows have been replaced by realistic paintings of plump clouds against a blue sky. Inside, the interior has been completely remodeled to accommodate the 200 Magritte items on show: paintings, drawings, gouaches, posters, advertising art, letters, photographs, sculptures, and films.
Unlike Hergé, Magritte was a late bloomer. Born in 1898, his artistic talents initially led him into wallpaper design and advertising. It was only by 1945 that he was able to support himself solely though his art. But his advertising apprenticeship taught him about the efficiency of images, the shock value of a grotesque combination or a violent contradiction. And he delivered them prolifically, from a rainfall of men in bowler hats to portraits of eagles ossified into plants to his famous picture of a pipe, subtitled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” .
Although Magritte lived a quiet life, enjoying simple pleasures like walking his dog and playing chess, he had an anarchic streak. He briefly joined the Communist Party in 1945 and even contributed poster designs to the cause. Hergé admired Magritte, and even bought one of his paintings. But Magritte saw Tintin as too colonial, Catholic and conservative. In the 1930s, Hergé drew the cover for a political pamphlet for Léon Degrelle, leader of the Belgian fascists; at the same time, Magritte published a caricature of Degrelle looking into a mirror and seeing an image of Adolf Hitler looking back at him.
But like Hergé, Magritte created his art for mass consumption and strived to reproduce it as widely as possible. One of his most emblematic images is The Empire of Lights, a mysterious and disturbing juxtaposition of a house front lit by a street lamp set under a daytime sky. Magritte painted the same image 16 times in oil, and a further seven times in gouache. “Magritte’s focus was on images and the spread of ideas,” says Michel Draguet, Director General of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. “He was obsessed with the idea of mass representation, and he loved seeing his pictures on postcards.”
And there, Hergé and Magritte have perhaps their strongest connection: They created works that had both a lasting artistic impact and an enduring popular appeal. Today, their playful images still feed intellectual debate and drive merchandise sales. And they are both famous Belgians.
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