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Thursday, August 1, 2019

About four comic art exhibits in France in the summer of 2019

About four comic art exhibits in France in the summer of 2019

Jean-Paul Gabilliet
Université Bordeaux Montaigne

Sempé en liberté, itinéraire d’un dessinateur d’humour (Sempé at large: a humor cartoonist’s itinerary). Bordeaux: Musée Mer Marine. May 29-October 6, 2019.

Jack Kirby : la galaxie des super-héros (Jack Kirby: the galaxy of superheroes). Louise Hallet and Bernard Mahé. Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, Normandy: Musée Thomas Henry. May 25-September 1, 2019.

Scientifiction - Blake et Mortimer au musée des arts et métiers. Thierry Bellefroid and Eric Dubois. Paris: Musée des Arts et Métiers. June 26, 2019-January 20, 2020.

Histoire de l’art cherche personnages… (Art history looking for characters…). Bordeaux: CAPC. June 20, 2019 thru February 2, 2020.

Holidaymakers (or wandering scholars) engaging in comic art tourism will possibly remember France as their destination of choice in the summer of 2019. Even for a country where museums of all sizes nationwide seem to have developed a particular liking for funny books since the early 21st century, this estival surge of exhibitions giving pride of place to comic art appears as an unusually happy coincidence, especially given the geographical diversity of the locations featuring some of the medium’s luminaries. Another worthwhile point is that each of those events highlights a distinct approach to comic art exhibiting. Although comics have been displayed in museums and galleries increasingly routinely all over the world in the last five decades, the challenge that curators have to meet is to constantly reinvent the museographic approaches to the medium to avoid rehashing the “the artist and his/her work” pattern which, however appealing to mainstream media, way too often frames the public perception of the medium as a middlebrow, petit-bourgeois ersatz of creator-based fine-arts history. Career retrospectives of cartoonists are not intrinsically flawed (two will be reviewed below), but they should not be the only format brought to bear to develop the museography of comic art.
Poster of the Sempé show.

            Sempé en liberté, itinéraire d’un dessinateur d’humour (Sempé at large: a humor cartoonist’s itinerary) exemplifies the most classical form of monographic comic art museography. It’s apparently odd location­—a museum dedicated to oceanography and the history of sea navigation—has nothing to do with any particular connection of the artist with seafaring, but a lot with his personal history as a Bordeaux native. The exhibit displays close to 350 pieces created by Jean-Jacques Sempé, a now-elderly cartoonist whose fame rests on very different pillars in France and the USA. Born into a working-class family outside Bordeaux in 1932, Sempé never received any formal art training and started working in the fifties as a freelance cartoonist for newspapers and magazines. He has actually produced a very limited amount of sequential comics, a format with which he has always felt uncomfortable. Still “Le Petit Nicolas” (Little Nicolas), the comic he contributed to the Belgian magazine Le Moustique from 1956 to 1958 was the origin of his future long-term fame in France. Scripted by René Goscinny (who was to co-create Asterix the Gaul with Albert Uderzo in 1959),  this series of one-page gags loosely based on the two creators’ childhood memories was subsequently reborn as of 1959 in the form of illustrated short stories in Bordeaux’s daily newspaper Sud-Ouest and in Goscinny’s new weekly magazine Pilote

Goscinny (left) and Sempé (right) autographing "Les récrés du Petit Nicolas" (c. 1963).
The “Petit Nicolas” collections published by Denoël and constantly reprinted since the sixties have become classics of children’s literature in France. They are Sempé’s main claim to fame with the country’s general public. His illustrated stories and collections of press cartoons are very much respected too, although they have never met with the same long-term popularity as Nicolas. In the United States, Sempé has never become a household name to the same extent as in France. However, he has contributed over a hundred covers for The New Yorker since 1978, which has made him there a middlebrow–to-highbrow cartoonist—a status quite distinct from his widespread perception as a beloved children’s book illustrator in his birth country.
            Sempé en liberté exemplifies traditional gallery-like exhibiting, with a great deal of white wall space and comments in French and (sometimes shoddy) English underneath the displayed pieces. It is easy to tell that the exhibit has been put together under the supervision of Martine Gossieaux, the owner of the Parisian cartoon art gallery that has been Sempé’s agent for years. The show is basically a chronological overview of the artist’s career illustrated by a wide choice of original art pieces and, unfortunately, very few printed documents. The eponymous 300-page catalog released in connection with the show (Sempé : Itinéraire d'un dessinateur d'humour, Martine Gossieaux, 2019, €39.00) regrettably misses some of the pieces on display, but otherwise aptly recreates and sometimes provides further insight into the breadth of Sempé’s creativity, that of an instantly recognizable draftsman who has always cultivated minimalist composition and low-key humor and based most of his illustration work on small (or sometimes tiny) characters featured within or against expansive backgrounds.[1]
Poster of the Kirby show.
            The second show will be much more familiar to the US and international public. “Jack Kirby : la galaxie des super-héros” (Jack Kirby: the galaxy of superheroes) is located in Normandy. The Musée Thomas Henry is the fine arts museum of Cherbourg, the small Normandy port made famous by Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical romantic drama and box-office hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In 2002, following a successful exhibit on Enki Bilal organized two years earlier, the museum became a key partner in the Biennale du 9e art, a local biennial comics-related cultural event whose highlight is a big exhibition about a major creator, either French (Moebius, Tardi) or international (Hugo Pratt, Winsor McCay). The choice of Kirby for 2019 is justified both by the 25th anniversary of Kirby’s death and the 75th anniversary of D-Day, around which many celebrations have been held in Normandy. Another, smaller Kirby-related exhibit titled La Guerre de Kirby, l’inventeur des super-héros modernes (The War of Kirby, the Creator of Modern Superheroes) is in Bayeux, 60 miles south-east of Cherbourg, from June 4 through August 24. This show (co-curated by the French Kirby scholar Jean Depelley), staged in a cultural center with an admittedly didactic focus, features no original artwork, but consists of several large posters including numerous reproductions of photographs and comic art illustrating Kirby’s biography with an emphasis on his participation in ground combat on the French front in 1944.[2]
Darkseid room. ©JMEnault_Ville de Cherbourg-en-Cotentin
By contrast, the Cherbourg show, largely based on original art, has trumpeted its museum-worthy specificity, even though, as usual, the eye candy of connoisseurs may taste a bit dull to lay visitors, particularly children. Such is the insurmountable dilemma of exhibits of original comic art—too much black and white, not enough color! Co-created by Musée Thomas Henry curator Louise Hallet and the well-known Paris comic art dealer/expert/collector Bernard Mahé, the exposition presents 217 original pieces (and twenty actual vintage comic books), many of which have never been shown in public events before. Not every single piece of artwork has been drawn by the King though. Unlike the Sempé exposition, this one has steered clear of a fully monographic approach and instead contextualized Kirby’s work within the continuum of 20th-century US comics history. While most of the itinerary concentrates on Kirby’s artwork, the curators have chosen to emphasize the importance of both the artist’s precursors and followers, who account for about a quarter of the original art displayed throughout the exhibit. The first room, titled ”Jack Kirby’s imaginary museum” presents to visitors a sample of the big names and works that influenced the artist—Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, among others. The next rooms follow Kirby’s career from his early collaboration with Joe Simon to the turn-of-the-1950s romance period to the Atlas (soon-to-become Marvel) years with Stan Lee and all the way to the end of his life. The pièce de résistance is the big circular room at the center of which stands a presumably life-size 9-foot-tall statue of Darkseid. On the wall are displayed forty pages of original art from the “Fourth World” titles that Kirby created for DC in the seventies, including the complete New Gods #6 drawn in 1971. 
The other theme of the show is to have included the creators that were influenced more or less closely by Kirby, from James Steranko to John Buscema to Mike Mignola and others. The casual visitor who is not particularly knowledgeable about US comic history will probably be surprised by the inclusion of twenty original pages of “Duel in the Depths,” a story published in 1968 in Silver Surfer #3 and drawn by… John Buscema. It is a treat for the eyes for sure­—but also a reason to wonder: how off-topic can museographic choices go? In this case the curators’ historiographic concerns may have overshot the mark. So much wall space devoted to another artist in a Jack Kirby exposition is perhaps a tad too much (says this writer who is otherwise a huge fan of J. Buscema’s late sixties’ artistry…). The exhibit is a pure delight for any original comic art connoisseur, who will welcome the opportunity to behold such a spectacular array of John Buscema art from the artist’s best period. Only a curmudgeon would deny themselves such pleasure. 
The actual final regret about this show, however, cannot be blamed on its curators. The planned catalog had to be dropped because of the demands of the Marvel material’s copyright owner regarding reproduction fees and editorial control—the Walt Disney Company.[3]
Scientifiction EP Jacobs poster.
Let us now move down to the French capital with Scientifiction - Blake et Mortimer au musée des arts et métiers. This exhibit has had more media coverage than the previous two because, France being France, an art show located in Paris is automatically more high-profile than any comparable event taking place in the provinces. The other asset of this exposition, from a French and Belgian perspective, is that it is centered on Edgar P. Jacobs and his series “Blake and Mortimer.” These names that do not necessarily mean much to Americans, but have been familiar to many French people since the fifties. The Belgian cartoonist Edgar P. Jacobs (1904-1987) used to be the second pillar of the “clear line” school of comic art pioneered by Tintin creator Hergé. “Blake and Mortimer” was the series to which he devoted his whole career, exclusive of any other recurring characters. Jacobs was Hergé’s first assistant from 1943 to 1947 and a mainstay of the weekly Journal de Tintin as of its debut issue in 1946. The British adventurers’ duo formed by scientist Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake appeared in ten albums during Jacobs’ lifetime and have been revived in twelve volumes since 1990. Although Blake and Mortimer, as much as or even more than Tintin, originated the stylistic traits and characterization clichés of Belgium’s postwar clear-line comics, the series’ original run and post-1990 sequels have remained favorites for a large middle-aged-to-elderly readership enjoying narratives that come across as undeniably dated nowadays, yet retain the nostalgic aura that can be found for instance in Hollywood film noir and its “post-modern” rewritings. Every new Blake & Mortimer album is a surefire best-seller in Belgium and France with initial print runs hovering around a half million copies.
Jacobs show. © J.-P. Gabilliet
Scientifiction is at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the industrial design museum located in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement and made famous worldwide by Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel as the repository of the original Foucault’s Pendulum. Walking through this exhibit is an engrossing multi-media experience: visitors find themselves surrounded by often hard-to-identify scientific objects, huge canvases featuring color enlargements of comic panels, showcases displaying rarely more than three pieces of original comic art, and background music by Bruno Letort that changes when one moves from one spot to the other. Unlike the Sempé and Kirby exhibits, this is no standard retrospective of the artist’s career. It is more of a staged dialogue between art and science, between the visionary scientific imagination that Jacobs brought to bear in his graphic novels and the technological objects and innovations of his time, i. e. the 1940s through the 1970s.  This is a case where comic art meets cultural history for the mutual enrichment of both.
Those visitors that have little or no familiarity with Blake and Mortimer will quickly lose track of what elements belong to which album, but it does not really matter. The show’s curators Thierry Bellefroid, a Belgian writer and TV journalist, and Eric Dubois, a French professor of applied arts, have done away with the traditional museographic criteria of chronology and linearity. They have instead structured the exposition around the four elements: air, earth, wind, fire. After entering a lobby where they are treated to some background information about Jacobs’ career, visitors pass into a dark corridor only lit by loop footage from Fritz Lang’s M (1931) featuring Peter Lorre on the left wall, and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) on the right wall; these two early expressionist influences permeated Jacobs’ imagery and visuals well into the 1950s and are particularly perceptible in the 1956 album La Marque Jaune (The Yellow “M”),  regarded by many as the original run’s masterpiece. In the large central room plunged in a penumbra, visitors can circulate freely from one showcase to another. Each showcase, related to a theme and a color, displays (sometimes outlandish) technological objects and original pieces of Jacobs artwork that resonate with one another. The room at the far end, in normal lighting, is a laboratory of sorts in which visitors can view more state-of-the-art scientific objects of yesteryear and a number of artifacts coming from Jacobs’ personal studio, such as models characters’ heads but also of l’Espadon (the Swordfish, the ultra-advanced aircraft, thanks to which the European forces defeated their Asian aggressors in the imaginary Third World War depicted in the series’ first album).
Although the agenda of the curators is less to show pretty pictures than to bring visitors to immerse themselves in the scientific imagination and imagery of the mid-20th century, hardcore comic art amateurs and/or Jacobs fans will not be disappointed with the show. The selection of artwork on display, on loan from Fondation Roi Baudoin (Belgium’s royal philanthropic foundation founded under King Baudoin I’s auspices in 1976), is simply spectacular. It includes a number of pieces rarely or never shown to the public before, including several detailed preliminary sketches of full pages that highlight the rigorous craftsmanship that Jacobs used to put in his drawing. As a final bonus the show is accompanied by a gorgeous hardbound 100-page catalog with a faux cloth spine that mimics the format of 1950s Blake and Mortimer albums.[4]
Poster of the CAPC show
            We return back to Bordeaux, finally, for Histoire de l’art cherche personnages… (Art history looking for characters…) on display at the CAPC, the local museum of contemporary art, from June 20, 2019 thru February 2, 2020. This exhibit, co-organized with Angoulême’s Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image and Geneva’s Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, gathers over a hundred works by 60-odd comic art and contemporary art creators.[5] According to page one of the free booklet authored by cartoonist Philippe Dupuy and available with the admission ticket, it addresses “what may define the human being, from their representation to their condition, as an individual forced to deal with their surroundings, their history, and the other.” 
The visitor is invited to explore two perpendicular “galleries” divided into a series of adjacent rooms. Galerie Ferrère has seven rooms titled Intrigue, Silhouettes, Animaux philosophes (Philosophizing Animals), Attente (Expectation), La Cage (The Cage), Démultiplication (Multiplication), and Dans le noir (In the dark). It overarching topic is the quest for the human figure based on the questioning of modes of existence and representation. 
Galerie Foy comprises thirteen rooms divided into nine sections: the first four have English titles—Privacy, Home, Trauma, Blue Spill—and the last five French titles—Les démons (The Demons), Le musée (The Museum), Tabloïds (Tabloids), Cabinet de lecture (Reading Room), and Cinéma (Cinema). Its subject-matter is the human creature’s quest for meaning, with a focus on narration rather than representation per se as in the Galerie Ferrère displays. The most amazing piece, in the Cabinet de Lecture section, is a 14.5-meter-long steel chassis holding a mobile conveyor belt to which are attached the pages of Une histoire de l’art, Philippe Dupuy’s own take on art history which was originally created as a webcomic before being published as a 23-meter-long leporello in 2016.[6] Viewers will find it impossible to read each page, which is in constant motion, but cannot help witnessing the endless succession that replicates the temporal flow of pages in a webcomic.
Detail from Philippe Dupuy’s installation.
© J.-P. Gabilliet

In each room, pieces of comic art (original art, enlarged panels, floppy comic books, albums, TPBs, or graphic novels) are displayed next to pieces of figurative contemporary art (paintings, sculptures, installations) around a unifying, if often loose, theme. In this context, comic art appears strongly de-commodified. The juxtaposition with contemporary art works by contrast emphasizes the expressiveness of isolated pages, a dimension often overshadowed and literally “lost from sight” in the narrative flow of linear reading. Unlike the three shows previously reviewed, this one gives no specific added value to original comic artwork over books or printed art; Art Spiegelman, for instance, is featured only through issues of RAW and underground comix. What is at stake here is the consideration of the expressiveness and meaningfulness made possible by the medium rather than the celebration of any individual artist(s). Obviously whoever is familiar with Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, besides being delighted with the displaying of several original pages from this famous experimental comic in the eponymous room of Galerie Ferrère, will quickly become alive to the analogy between Vaughn-James’ work and the show’s “formal vocabulary” (as defined by Dupuy). The booklet’s central section is itself a 22-page comic in which Dupuy “narrates” his personal experience of “Histoire de l’art cherche personnages…”.
The exhibit’s underlying agenda questions the major changes and achievements of figurative art since the late 1960s and the heyday of “figuration narrative,” a current identified by art critic Gérald Gassiot-Talabot  around those French contemporary artists that simultaneously rejected full-fledged abstraction and “the static derisiveness of US pop art” (Gassiot-Talabot). It is important to remember that this pictorial movement (exemplified in the Bordeaux show by some of its big names: Adami, Arroyo, Erró, Klasen, Monory, Rancillac, etc.) was the gateway of comic art into museums through Bande dessinée et figuration narrative, the high-profile exposition held at the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs in spring 1967.[7] In many respects Histoire de l’art cherche personnages… comes across as a follow-up to the trailblazing show of 1967. It provides insight into the huge strides achieved over the last half-century by comic art in terms of cultural legitimization and by figurativeness as artistic ethos in the early 21st century contemporary art scene.[8]
            The four exhibits I have briefly reviewed here testify to the diversity of possible museographic uses of comic art nowadays. From standard monography (Sempé) to historiographic monography (Kirby) to cultural history (Jacobs) to dialoguing across art forms (Histoire de l’art…) comic art exhibiting seems increasingly open to a plurality of conceptual and aesthetic possibilities that by far transcend the arguably increasingly humdrum pattern of “career retrospectives,” notwithstanding the genuine satisfaction one is perfectly free to experience while beholding wall-to-wall displays of original comic art drawn by a given creator. While many museums and galleries still regard comic art as “easily accessible” art that will likely attract paying visitors—a legitimate expectation by all means, unfortunately—the full museographic potential of comic art is yet to be tapped. The more imaginative curators will prove, the more alive we will all become to the versatility of our favorite art form.

(A version of this review will appear in an upcoming issue of IJOCA, but we wished to make it available while the exhibits included are still available to visit)

[1] TV clip in French on the exhibit :
[4] Thierry Bellefroid (dir.), Scientifiction. Blake et Mortimer au musée des arts et métiers (Editions BLAKE & MORTIMER, 2019), €30.00. Photographs of the show:
[5] The roster of comic artists includes David B., Blanquet & Olive, Charles Burns, Cham, Julie Doucet, Philippe Dupuy, André Franquin, Jochen Gerner, Marcel Gotlib, Emmanuel Guibert, Patrice Killoffer, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Chantal Montellier, Pierre La Police, Ruppert & Mulot, Joe Sacco, Johanna Schipper, Joann Sfar, Art Spiegelman, Lewis Trondheim, Martin Vaughn-James, Fabio Viscogliosi, Chris Ware, Willem, and Winshluss.
 [6] Dupuy’s own detailed description of this installation:
[7] The book published in connection with that show was translated in English: Pierre Couperie & Maurice Horn (ed.), A History of the Comic Strip (New York: Crown, 1968).
 [8] The booklet can be downloaded from A press kit in French including several reproductions can be downloaded from A well-illustrated English-language web presentation of the show is at