Did you love reading Tintin books when you were a child? I did, in fact I still do and reading them to Wandering Kiwi Jr provides the perfect excuse to delve back into these famous travel adventures! So when I was planning our winter road trip around Belgium and the Netherlands this year I was keen to include a visit to the Musée Hergé, a museum dedicated to the works of comic artist Hergé.
This is in Louvain-la-Neuve, is around an hour’s drive from Brussels, and only opened five years ago. Designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc in the rich landscape of Walloon Brabant, it is a pleasure to wander through. Over 80 original plates are on display, as well as photographs, objects and film that takes us inside the working world of this talented artist.
The first revelation was in the name of the artist. Herge’ is the French pronunciation of R.G., which is just the initials of George Remy backwards!
The museum seeks to reveal a strong connection between Hergé’s life and his work. As a child he was always drawing, rarely without his sketchbook and his creations were parts of himself. For example the character Tchang in The Adventure of the Blue Lotus was also a young Chinese student who Hergé met in Belgium. Herge said that this young man made him aware of the need to get the true facts on a country and to lay out a coherent story.
Hergé prolific legacy and passion came at some price to him physically and emotionally. He was a man who dedicated his life to a particular artform:
“Tintin brought me happiness, I did my best at what I was doing and it wasn’t always easy. But I had a lot of fun. Moreover, as Sacha Guitry said, I got paid for doing it. Doesn’t that take the biscuit?”
The year 1929 was a milestone for Hergé, for this was when Tintin was first published. This was the era of the great globe-trotting reporters, journalists that criss-crossed the world, boarding the Trans-Siberian express, travelling by ship and more. It was also the gloomy postwar/Great Depression era, when people loved to be transported to exotic places through fiction.
“To me, my ideal was the reporter, a veritable hero in my eyes…I had great admiration for the real-life journalists, and, amongst them, those that were true reporters.”
Hergé’s characters are certainly burnt into my imagination, such colourful voices and truly timeless. Just think of Captain Haddock with his complex personality. And Thomson and Thompson – who you can tell apart by their moustaches, which reflect the first letter of their French names!
Something that has always bothered me about the Tintin books is the dearth of female characters. The Musee Hergé cleared up this problem for me in an unexpected way.
“I am no woman-hater, believe me, not at all in my stories, almost all of the male characters are caricatures; and so are the rare female personages. And it is precisely because I am very reluctant to depict a female in a comical guise that I present so few ‘real’ women in my stories. When a man stumbles and sprawls on the street popeple tend to laugh at the sight, when a woman fails, there is no laughter. It is one of the reasons why one should refrain from using too many female characters in stories that depict people in a ridiculous light.”
It was immensely important to Hergé to get the facts right (like a reporter). His books were very well researched and he was a very well-informed man generally. He watched newsreels and was simply steeped in news. He created detailed technical drawings and models, aiming for realism in all the accessories and background scenery. He wrote the Destination Moon books 15 years before men actually walked on the moon! Although I have to say he had Tintin carrying his iceaxe in the wrong hand in the Tibet book…
There is a sense that Herge’s many talents were ultimately overshadowed by the enormous success of The Adventures of Tintin, which became a sort of industry with a studio producing each work in collaboration with the artist.
But he was much more than simply a comic strip author. He mastered varied artistic techniques – engraving, illustration, typography and graphic design. The museum shows examples of his work that the public had not previously been able to see.
Downstairs in the Musee Hergé are a collection of objects made at the time the books were written, for example a magic lantern and a model for The Unicorn ship.
In 1975 preparations were being made to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tintin magazine and the publishers planned a surprise for Herge. They commissioned a full-length statue of Tintin and Snowy from Belgian sculptor Nat Neujean. Thus, there is also a room in the museum dedicated to the works of Neujean. This Belgian artist’s works can be found in many museums and galleries around the world and in Brussels.
Initially the plaster statue was inaugurated in 1976 in Wolvendael Park in Uccle, a suburb of Brussels (and a lovely park it is too). I love that in the sculpture Snowy turns away from his master as a mark of independence – he is a character in his own right!
Later the statue was cast in bronze and moved to the Uccle Cultural Centre on Rue Rouge. There are some copies around Brussels as well… There are many other representations of Tintin and friends in Brussels, from street murals to statues. There are frescos in the Gare du Midi and the Gare du Luxembourg, a street mural from the Calculus affair near Mannekin Pis on Rue de l’Etuve.
Another famous Tintin reference in Brussels is atop the “Tintin Building” on Avenue Paul-Henri Spaak. This building is a listed former-publishing house that produced Tintin magazine from 1946 to 1988.
Perhaps this shows how much Tintin has become a cultural treasure in Belgium. And why the Musee Hergé just had to be created. I will finish with two wonderful quotes that I found in the museum, the first from Herge himself:
“By believing in his dreams, man turns them into reality.”
And the second from film director Alain Resnais:
“Belgium belongs to the realm of fantasy. I found this out through reading Tintin.”
If you are interested in Belgian comic art don’t miss the wonderful Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels. Hergé was one of the prime instigators for the establishment of this museum 25 years ago.
By Natasha von Geldern
Many thanks to Stena Line ferries, who transported the Wandering Kiwi family car to the ‘Low Countries’ for our winter roadtrip this year. Travel from Harwich to the Hook of Holland is comfortable and a great starting point for a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.