About four comic art exhibits in France in the summer of 2019
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).|
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.
|Poster of the Kirby show.|
|Darkseid room. ©JMEnault_Ville de Cherbourg-en-Cotentin|
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.
|Scientifiction EP Jacobs poster.|
|Jacobs show. © J.-P. Gabilliet|
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.
|Poster of the CAPC show|
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. 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
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. 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.
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)
 TV clip in French on the exhibit : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMaSA3KlafQ.
 Photographs of the exhibit can be seen at the following URLs : https://www.actuabd.com/Jack-Kirby-roi-de-Cherbourg; http://bdzoom.com/142972/patrimoine/incroyable-exposition-jack-kirby-une-galaxie-de-planches-originales-du-createur-de-captain-america-envahit-cherbourg/.
 Thierry Bellefroid (dir.), Scientifiction. Blake et Mortimer au musée des arts et métiers (Editions BLAKE & MORTIMER, 2019), €30.00. Photographs of the show:https://www.actuabd.com/Scientifiction-Blake-Mortimer-dans-le-temple-de-la-science.
 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.
 Dupuy’s own detailed description of this installation: https://www.du9.org/chronique/une-histoire-de-lart/.
 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).
 The booklet can be downloaded from https://fr.calameo.com/read/0014801212ede7ed7a1c2. A press kit in French including several reproductions can be downloaded from http://www.capc-bordeaux.fr/sites/capc-bordeaux.fr/files/capc_dp__histartcherchepersonnages_fr.pdf. A well-illustrated English-language web presentation of the show is at https://www.fg-art.org/en/exhibition-exhibitions/histoire-de-lart-cherche-personnages.
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