The Comics Art Museum in Brussels is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and – given the number of times I have visited Brussels – it was starting to get a bit embarrassing that I had never been! All that changed last month when at last I slipped through the doors of the beating heart of Belgium’s comic-strip culture.
It used to be called the Belgian Comic Strip Centre but the museum has evolved, along with the comic industry to be a real reflection of the depth of Belgium’s comic-strip culture and the value of its comic art heritage. You can’t wander through Brussels without noticing the street art and more often than not it is comic art – whether it is TinTin or the Smurfs, to name a couple of internationally famous Belgian comic creations. But there is so much more to European comic art than these! Look out for the ‘pleasantly disturbed’ sisters Kinky and Cosy, innocently wreaking slapstick havoc with unfazed children’s logic.
Willem De Graeve is the communications director of the Belgian Comic Arts Museum and he explained to the BBC that the comics business has seen great changes in the 25 years since the museum opened: “In 1989 there were 500 new comic books. Last year, there were 5,000. When we opened, almost 80% of people coming here were Belgians. Now it’s the other way round. Belgians are a minority, only 17%.” So comics have become part of Belgium’s international image, no longer a niche but a mass-tourism attraction!
We added a couple more New Zealanders to the mix last month when we visited the gorgeous ex-department store designed by Victor Horta (only one of the most famous European art nouveau architect/designers). This particular art nouveau masterpiece was built in 1906 and even makes a literary appearance in a novel by Emile Zola (‘The Ladies Paradise’):
“It was like the concourse of a station, surrounded by the balustrades of the two upper storeys, intersected by hanging staircases, and with suspension bridges built across it. The iron staircases, with double spirals opened out in bold curves, multiplying the landings; the iron bridges,thrown across the void, ran straight along, very high up; and beneath the pale light from the windows, all this metal formed a delicate piece of architecture, a complicated lacework through which the daylight passed, the modern realisation of a dream palace…”
I couldn’t have put it better myself… You can still imagine when it was the Waucquez Warehouse, with cloth and fabrics for sale here at 20 rue de Sables. This area of Brussels is one that has come off second best in the rush of 20th-century progress – and it became almost derelict after the store closed in 1970. The building was bought by the federal state in 1984 with the aim of establishing a museum devoted to comic strip.
The museum itself began as a cooperative project by authors and comic lovers with the aim of preserving and promoting the art of comic strips. TinTin author Herge was heavily involved and the result is wonderful.
It takes visitors through the history of comic art – from the monks illustrating sacred texts in the Middle Ages. Without realising it they invented most of the ‘grammar’ of comic strip art that we are familiar with today – dividing the story up in to panels, movement, foreground, dialogue in balloons etc.
The next part of the exhibition goes through the stages in the creative process of comic art – from the synopsis to rough sketches and through the various inking and colouring technique. Of course there is discussion of the modern digital tools that have revolutionised comic art.
Finally there are examples of the many different types of modern European comic art – from the genre comic to the graphic novel. Like all art forms, comic strip is a mode of expression that manifests itself in many ways for a variety of audiences.
The gift shop is excellent and there is a huge library out back – including a small area where you can sit on cushions and read (with your children or just by yourself). This is definitely now something I recommend to anyone visiting Brussels.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the Comic Arts Museum in Brussels? What did you think?