In the last, unfinished, Tintin book, Tintin and Alph-Art
, Captain Haddock inadvertently becomes enamoured by the world of contemporary art.
An unlikely convert, stepping into the Fourcar Gallery by chance to avoid the attention of an approaching Bianca Castafiore, the Captain first discovers, then becomes intrigued and beguiled by the work of conceptual artist Ramo Nash. He immediately purchases a sculptural letter "H", and returns to Marlinspike a changed man.
As a theme, Haddock's art-mania was to be tangential to a central plot intended as yet another pursuit of criminals and forgers for Tintin, but it still appears to be as ripe for humour as past obsessions of the Captain (becoming a monocle-wearing country squire, or divining how a stage magician might transform water into wine).
But the Captain's new found hobby and the fictional Fourcar gallery were very much central in their author's life, manifestations of his major interests.
The Fourcar gallery was a cartoon version of the Carrefour, an exclusive Brussels gallery to which Hergé would escape from his office at noon
, to discuss modern art in all its forms over cocktails with a group of like minded artists and collectors, away from the attentions of Castafiore, Tintin and his "paper family".
Hergé had a long-held desire to be a "proper" painter - the assumption of his nom-de-plume was done not so much with the intention of preserving his anonymity as to allow him to produce "fine art" under his own name at some point. But after some later life attempts to take up abstract art as an alternative career, he decided that he could not give it the attention required - why be a mediocre painter, when you can be one of the world's greatest cartoonists?
Yet art and art collecting was to prove a lasting obsession for Georges Remi, and Pierre Sterckx acted as a guide and teacher on his artistic journey.
Sterckx was many things: film writer, art connossieur and critic, lecturer and for nearly twenty years - up until the cartoonist's death - a very close friend of Hergé.
It's this friendship which is very much the heart and soul of a new book, Tintin: Hergé's Masterpiece (published by Rizzoli, ISBN978-0-7893-2947-9)
Sterckx undertakes a detailed analysis of how Hergé's deep love of art informed his output, and offers a critical reading of technique, composition, draughtsmanship and colour within the work he produced.
It may be easy to confer titles such as "master" or "genius" upon an artist and his work, it takes considerably more effort to set forth reasons for doing so, to explain just what is meant by such honorifics. Over the course of the book, with comparisons to both old masters and contemporary artists, Sterckx makes a case for Hergé to be considered as their peer; not "just" a cartoonist (although there is no hint that Sterckx thinks that cartoons are not a significant art-form), but an artist, able to stand with the other greats in the pantheon.
Sterckx has written before of Hergé's love of art, perhaps most notably in the 2006 book Hergé: Collectionneur d'Art
, and returns to the subject at much greater length here.
Like a lawyer creating a case, Sterckx uses the sections of the book to put forward a thesis and develop arguments to prove his position is a sound one.
Starting with a simple pair of questions - "What is a work of art? When is it art?", he takes the reader through several simple answers to do with esteem by others and monetary value placed on works - which he concedes have merits as indicators of "worth"; but these are merely the beginning, a place to set out on a far more intense scrutiny of what makes Hergé an "Artist", with a capital "A" as it were.
As the chapters unfold - from a look at the life story of Georges Remi, to a comparison of Hergé to other artists - Sterckx brings to bear a lifetime of artistic scholarship and critical sensibility to show Hergé's mastery of his chosen art form - not just in how well he draws pictures, but his understanding of how imbue life into his lines, to structure a frame, to compose a page and tell as story - and to place the results in relation to the greater artistic world.
It has to be said that some of M. Sterckx's observations were just too esoteric for me: a pronouncement such as, "Hergé made his blacks sing, revealing their deep internal colours", leaves me scratching my head somewhat.
However, that is perhaps no bad thing, as whether I truly understand it or not, I am more than prepared to accept that he is sincerely trying to open the reader to the artistry beneath the surface art, and thus I am prepared to make the effort to obtain at least an impression of what he is saying.
There are some points with which I would disagree - I feel Sterckx is overly ambitious in trying to make claims of innovation for some of the elements of Hergé's work; I am unsure that there's much benefit in trotting out yet again a comparison of the solid black frame from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets with a Malevich canvas, without reference to whether or not this was simply a cartoon trope for unconsciousness - but I am very impressed with the book as an analysis by a critic of an artist and friend.
I sometimes think that he glosses over, or dismisses too easily, the humour which Hergé must have seen in the world of art, just as he found it elsewhere in the world. He acknowledges that Hergé could be humorous about it, and reproduces the Quick & Flupke
cartoon in which Flupke exhibits an exhibition of all black paintings which purport to show views of Brussels by Night
, but insists that it isn't "ironic mockery".
I think that that is too quick a dismissal, and would contend that there was little in his life which Hergé might not have turned "ironic mockery" upon. I am sure that the mania of Haddock for art, and the new milieu of rich aesthetes in which he would have moved for Alph-Art
, as well as the possibility that Tintin might have had to face death at the hands of forgers intent on casting him in resin were both signs that Hergé was prepared to mock his own preoccupation with art. He wasn't being judgmental, but he was prepared to admit that others might see him and his passion as aspects of a middle-aged rich man indulging himself just because he could.
That is by the by, and my criticism of the book in this respect are very minor, and should not in any way overshadow the plus points which are many.
It is in many ways a meditation on art and artists, meditation and reflection being qualities which seem to have been important to Hergé when addressing art.
Sterckx gives an example in Hergé's appreciation - and purchase - of works by the Italian artist Fontana, who slashed the canvas with a razor to make slits - a technique which even Sterckx admits many would find too extreme to be seen as art.
Not only did Hergé see art in these brutal strokes, he didn't think the slashes as acts of violence, but rather as "contemplation", the "ultimate line" - as Sterckx puts it, "any line drawn on a surface divides it. The cuts made by Fontana therefore represented for Hergé the ideal of drawing."
This is a deep, sometimes perplexing but more-often illuminating book, which seeks and finds a way to bridge the two apparently separate worlds of "high" art and comics.
It benefits from the fact that Sterckx doesn't seek to impose orthodoxy on his readers, isn't intent on insisting that the circle should or could be squared. There are inherent problems with trying to define what is or isn't art, and he says as much: "Art is not something pure, disengaged from human contradiction. No absolute truth prevails."
Sadly Sterckx died shortly after completing this book, but it is a fitting epitaph to a life spent appreciating all aspects of art. I imagine that it might have more than a few overtones of the sort of conversation which the author and his subject had over cocktails at the Carrefour, and late into the night in Hergé's office - I also imagine that somewhere in the hereafter, the conversation has started again...
That hopefully covers the subject matter, but what of the book itself?
The number of illustrations is more than generous, and they are often given full pages to themselves, whilst the quality of reproduction throughout is stunning.
We as fans have been very well served in the access we have been given to Hergé's output, not just through the albums, but in the numerous books which have studied his life and work since his death, with several notable examples in the last few years; yet there are still gems to be found here from all periods of his career, not least a number of his painted works, which have been less frequently attended to than his cartooning, and even less reproduced.Black-and-white artwork examples
are, in the main, from original art, and many are reproduced to show pencil marks, indications in blue crayon for the application of tone dots for the printers to follow, and touches of white gouache used to correct mistakes and add white lines on black ink, as well as the texture and grain of the board or paper on which they are drawn.
Colour work is even more superb, with black line-art super-imposed on studio proofs of original colour schemes, which imparts clarity and texture to colours which the regular books might have lost. Should you be in any doubt, you don't even need to open the book for an example: just look at the full-page plate from Crab With the Golden Claws
adorning the back dust jacket: never has its beauty been so plain to see.