Hergé at the Centre Pompidou

5 Jan 2007

Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Photograph: Richard Wainman.

5th January 2007, central Paris. I’ve been standing out in the cold for a quarter of an hour. Why? One glance up at the banner on the front of the Centre Pompidou, which depicts a large red and white chequered rocket reminds me - the Hergé exhibition!

To celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hergé, the Centre Pompidou in conjunction with the Studios Hergé has organised a full-size exhibition of original artwork, manuscripts, letters and documents chronicling the life of the man who created Tintin, Snowy and all the others. In the press release it was stated that “the spotlight will be on the creator rather than on his creation”.

The exhibition is officially split across three floors, but the forum really doesn’t have anything apart from reproductions of ‘shock’ stars and swirls from the albums on the floor. So the show’s split into two sections - one, Hergé, his life & his art, is displayed on the mezzanine floor, but the public is directed to the basement where the majority of the exhibition is on show. First of all, I should mention the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like it in a gallery or museum - I arrived as the Pompidou was opening, and there was already a queue all the way up the courtyard. Throughout the day it continued, and once inside yet more queuing to get into the exhibition itself. It was a British dream. Some people were reading Tintin books (I spotted a girl immersed in The Seven Crystal Balls) whilst we waited and waited. Finally, an hour after turning up outside we were in, down the stairs … and confronted by a sign that told us photography was forbidden.

The display downstairs is split into seven sections. The first, Correspondence, features letters from Hergé to Charles Lesne, a member of staff at Casterman who would be Hergé’s main point of contact with the publishers. These vary in subject - the first job offer from Lesne is there, offering Hergé work as a book cover designer.

Publications covers all the magazines and newspapers that Hergé’s work appeared in. There’s issues of Le Vingtième Siècle for which Hergé drew covers and provided illustrations; Le Petit Vingtième too, with original pages of Quick & Flupke strips; there’s issues of Coeurs Valliants showing the end to Tintin in the Land of the Soviets - interestingly, the publishers chose to make Tintin French, which resulted in some very clumsy re-lettering on the final couple of pages! There’s copies of Le Soir, including pages of Jo, Zette & Jock and even the programme for the 1941 stage play. Then we move onto the Journal Tintin section, which has a range of issues (including the highly sought-after first!) and a small section devoted to the Christmas specials. This included some fantastic pencil and ink drawings for the covers, which I’d never seen before.

Moving on we come to Making Of, which charts the creation of the Moon books and gives a brilliant insight into Hergé’s working methods and how the Studios functioned. From books on astronomy we move onto letters to the scientist Bernard Heuvelmans, rough sketches and technical drawings (the atomic facilities, the Moon rocket, the Moon itself and a couple of detailed frames from the books), plus photographs of the model rocket Hergé had built. Then there’s the pencil pages, neat drawings leading to the inking stage; there’s samples of both on display. The painted whiteprint and the lettering proof, plus the finished magazine page lead to one of the highlights of the exhibition - the original ink drawings to the covers of both the Moon books. There were some surprises there! Did you know Hergé forgot the spare wheel of Destination Moon‘s jeep, and it was glued on afterwards? Or that the cover for Explorers on the Moon is made up of several different drawings, cut up and reassembled onto a new sheet?

In a glass display case in the middle of the floor are a number of other original pages, mostly inks, for The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and even the original ink cover to The Seven Crystal Balls.

Along one wall are more issues of Le Petit Vingtième dedicated to the Tintin in the East story that later became Cigars of the Pharaoh and … The Blue Lotus. This was a taster to the highlight of the exhibition - all one hundred and twenty-four original pages of The Blue Lotus assembled in a sort of Bayeux Tapestry-like display around the walls. You can really see Hergé’s artistic ability in these original pages in a way that’s sometimes obscured by the printed books.

Out of the Blue Lotus room and you’re confronted by a blaze of colour - the Family Portrait showing how each of Hergé’s main characters evolved throughout the series; this is fairly interesting as you’re not usually able to compare all of them side to side. To your right are the Self Portraits, original drawings and coloured enlargements of scenes from Quick & Flupke where Hergé drew himself into the stories. The last section downstairs is Hergé in his own words, which is a film interview mixed with scenes of the Studios Hergé at work on an album. I’m not sure where this film came from, it’s not part of Tintin et moi or Moi, Tintin and it’s a pity it wasn’t subtitled into English. The Making Of section was, why not this?

Upstairs to the mezzanine floor and to Hergé, his life & his work. On two sides of the display walls the audience can explore either Hergé’s life, told through a biography and reproductions of images (most of which are available in the Chronologie d’un Oeuvre series) or his work, which starts with drawings made as a teenager, such as one of a jazz band, and works its way chronologically through his life. There’s magazine illustrations and original pages of Totor, and then the first page of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Next, printed pages of Jo, Zette & Jocko from Coeurs Valliants and first editions of the first four Tintin albums. Most of this section consists of original pages of Tintin, including the one featuring Hergé’s favourite image (The Crab with the Golden Claws, the fleeing desert raiders from page 58 of the black and white edition). There’s an exercise book containing all the daily strips of Red Rackham’s Treasure that Hergé dutifully cut out and glued in, so he could later edit the story for album publication. Seeing the original pages of that book downstairs and now the newspaper reproductions I was amazed by the difference in size, and thought how disappointed Hergé must have felt to see his work treated in this way. On display are three pages from The Black Island, one from each version showing the evolution of the story; it also shows how far Hergé had come with regard to drawing style. There’s a similar display from Land of Black Gold too. The remainder of the display cases feature a mixture of pencil and ink pages from the rest of the series, and some little surprises - a project for a Christmas card showing the history of Tintin, and a page of Le Thermozéro, the unfinished Tintin adventure written by Greg and illustrated by Hergé. Coming to a couple of pages from Tintin and Alph-Art we reach the end of the exhibition.

It’s hard to say how this compares to other Tintin and Hergé exhibitions - I’ve only been to the Greenwich one otherwise, but this one easily has the edge. I suppose it depends what you want to see. The Pompidou’s exhibition focuses on the creative process that went into the books, and therefore doesn’t have statues or video adaptations on display. It’s all about the art, and this suited me perfectly. All of the work was drawn from the Studios Hergé archives which begs the question - what else have they got in there? As I mentioned, there’s plenty of things I’d never seen before, even in books, and it was a great opportunity to see the original drawings up close. And anyone doubting Hergé’s enduring popularity only need take one look at the crowd on the day I went - Tintin is here to stay!

Whether you’re able to visit the show or not, the exhibition catalogue is highly recommended. It features more work than was on display and covers Hergé’s entire life, so if you don’t fancy splashing out on the entire Chronologie d’un Oeuvre series this is a must. Quotes by Hergé make up the text, so you essentially get a guided tour through his work.  

Hergé runs at the Centre Pompidou from 20th December 2006 until 19th February 2007, free admission.