Hergé and Dürer
General de Gaulle once remarked that Tintin was his only serious international rival. The Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a 75th anniversary exhibition celebrating the work of Hergé, the French author and cartoonist who wrote the much-loved and much-translated Tintin books. Hergé had a love of and interest in ships and the sea, and the maritime link becomes obvious when you see the meticulous care he lavished on his illustrations. He visited dockyards and shipbuilders, travelled on the ships he was to use in his stories, and studied antique maritime diagrams and charts. He was a lifetime subscriber to a number of nautical and marine periodicals. The result is drawings of beauty, surprising perspectives, and sometimes of great complexity, in an exhibition not at all out of keeping with the Maritime Museum’s new look.
The exhibition has been put together by somebody who has really enjoyed the challenge, and starts off, very imaginatively, with a display of all the Tintin books, available for reading on separate desks. You really need take your children no further than this but it affords an admirable overview of Hergé’s work.
Hergé’s career is carefully explored – his almost immediate success in the early 1920s, his later friendship with Andy Warhol, whose portrait of him hangs in the exhibition. We trace his own social and political responses, the development of his characters over a series of books, and what one would now call his lack of political correctness. To those who have just thought of his books as cartoons for children, it is quite a surprise to look at his work in this way.
Tintin, small and intrepid in his baggy trousers with his trademark quiff of hair, is every child’s hero – resourceful, brave, sometimes frightened, but always wins in the end. The other characters are more complex and perhaps reflect some of Hergé’s own anxieties and frustrations and their language, necessarily in translation, is inventive and original – Captain Haddock’s expletives are splendid!
His books often reflect contemporary attitudes. In The Blue Lotus, published in 1934, for instance, it is very clear that the Japanese are the enemy, endlessly foiled and outwitted, whereas the Chinese are portrayed as gentle, polite and clever.
In The Shooting Star, published in 1941, despite the adventurous story, there is a prevailing mood of despondency and sadness. This book has some of his most beautiful drawings. There is a sequence of Tintin against a night sky, full of stars (meticulously researched and correctly placed) which gives a wonderful sense of space and atmosphere in a series of tiny drawings.
The Red Sea Sharks was written about the slave trade, after a particularly brutal revelation in a French newspaper (the newspaper cutting is on display). If he were still alive, he might have taken up the subject of asylum-seekers and the smuggling of human cargoes.
Here is an internationally known and loved cartoonist and writer. His work is known all over the world and translated into sixty languages. There is something very encouraging in the knowledge that children can read The Adventures of Tintin in such a variety of languages, including Bengali and Tahitian. Whatever their very differing circumstances may be, adults and children all over the world unite in their enjoyment of the courage, honesty and resourcefulness of Hergé’s eponymous hero.
‘Dürer and the Virgin in the Garden’ is the title of a small but very lovely exhibition in the National Gallery. It has as its focus a painting which was bought in 1945 by the National Gallery as being by Dürer. Subsequent research is of the opinion that the work is from his workshop, with some of the original studies and underpainting by Dürer himself. It is a magnificent picture in its own right, showing the Virgin sumptuously clad in two shades of brilliant red, her golden curls gleaming, suckling an energetic Christ Child in a flower-filled garden. A small figure of God the Father is seen in the clouds behind her head. Peonies, irises, vines and grasses are painted with exquisite accuracy and detail.
Devotion to the Virgin was a very important part of mediaeval Christianity. She was frequently painted in a beautiful enclosed garden – Hortus Inclusus. This rich and beautiful image told of her perpetual virginity but also related to the Garden of Eden and to the beauty of Paradise where she reigns with her Son. The concept was a fruitful source of wonderful paintings, especially in Northern Europe. It also found expression in exquisite tapestries and embroideries.
The animals and the flowers were real. They were those that the artists saw round them and of which they made detailed studies. Spring and summer flowers came to be associated with the Virgin’s attributes – irises, with their sword-like leaves; roses, red for blood; wild strawberries for sweetness; lilies for purity. The beautiful flower studies in the exhibition, and the one remarkable atmospheric landscape (which reappears in his tiny painting of St Jerome in the desert) show how carefully Dürer studied form and colour. He owned a beautiful study of peonies by Schöngauer which is on display in this exhibition. This is reproduced in detail in his drawing of The Virgin with the Animals, appearing, with a group of irises, just to the left of the seated Virgin.
In this exhibition are some of Dürer’s most lovely and intimate drawings of the Virgin and Child. His work was much in demand and his different studies of the subject are enchanting. Sometimes the Virgin holds the Child to her cheek, sometimes she suckles him. In one woodcut he is holding a book while three hares sport about the hem of her robe. There are drapery studies with flowing lines and cross-hatched shadows in many of these pictures. The movement and vitality of both figures and draperies give us some idea of why Dürer’s work was so admired and sought after.
In the Virgin with Animals in pen and ink and watercolour, you can see angels and shepherds, tiny boats in a harbour, owls, herons, foxes (representing evil), a small dog (fidelity), a parrot (the Prophets), a pelican (sacrifice) and lovingly delineated flowers and grasses. This and other sketches give us a real insight into the sources and the working methods of his studio.
His famous watercolour The Great Piece of Turf is shown in this country for the first time. It is well-known from reproduction, but to see it in reality is a marvel – it is, of course, no random piece of turf, but an exquisitely balanced study of leaves, grasses, dandelions and spidery roots. This and other studies give this small exhibition a sense of intimacy. One shares with Albrecht Dürer some of his delight in the flowers and animals he drew with such skill and care.
Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent for New Directions