Some 230m copies of Georges Remi’s – aka Hergé’s – Tintin comic book albums have been published worldwide, translated into over 100 languages. But Hergé also put his name to a considerable amount of commercial work, from illustrations for magazines to poster designs, much of which is now on show in the largest ever exhibition of his original artwork at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Remi was 11 years old in 1918 when the First World War ended and he recalled his childhood in Brussels, with the German occupation of Belgium, as “sad and grey”. His home wasn’t particularly happy, either. The young Georges escaped into a world of his own, writing and illustrating stories. But two seemingly unrelated post-war discoveries were to change the course of his life dramatically – the Boy Scouts and the cinema.
Georges and his little brother Paul were taken to see the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Lloyd or Max Linder every week. The elder Remi brother was enraptured by the comedies and dramas played out on the screen in black and white – the actors had to express their thoughts through their expressions and gestures; each visual sequence had to advance the plot. Unconsciously, Georges was absorbing the graphic arts of composition, perspective and character creation.
“In the era of silent movies,” he said, “the image had to be instantly expressive and legible.” Remi observed how extreme clarity produced maximum impact, a principle he applied throughout his work. He also discovered French and American comics by the likes of Benjamin Rabier, Alain Saint-Ogan and George McManus, later admitting to copying McManus’ round noses as they were “such fun that I used them without any scruples!”
Remi joined the Belgian Boy Scouts where the positive philosophy, camaraderie and outdoor activities boosted his self-confidence. He created a character named ‘Totor’ for a comic strip in the Scouts’ magazine that was distributed throughout Belgium. On the strip, Georges Remi signed his work with his reversed initials – ‘RG’ – pronounced ‘Hergé’ in French.
In 1925, aged 18, he was hired by the Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle by its editor, Abbé Wallez, a key mentor for the young artist (he worked in the photo-engraving department). In 1929, Wallez launched a 16-page supplement for younger readers, Le Petit Vingtième, and made Hergé its editor-in-chief. “It was for Le Petit Vingtième that I created Tintin,” Hergé said. “He was like Totor’s little brother. A Totor who grew up to be a reporter, but always with the soul of a boy scout.”
Who else can claim that from age 21 to age 50-plus they took no holidays, weekend breaks, evenings out or foreign travel, just devoted their entire life to illustrating?
The newspaper absorbed him completely: he was responsible for its typography, layout and cover illustration, and writing and illustrating two full pages of the Adventures of Tintin. He worked 12-hour days with a phenomenal output.
“When Hergé says, ‘Tintin is my whole life’,” writes biographer Benoit Mouchart, “who else can claim that from age 21 to age 50-plus they took no holidays, weekend breaks, evenings out or foreign travel, just devoted their entire life to illustrating?” While Hergé researched background details exhaustively, his rendering was minimalist – Tintin’s head is practically a circle, his eyes flat, black ovals. This may explain his universal appeal. Hergé believed that “Tintin is a mask anyone can wear”.
Yet, all Hergé’s characters are expressive, credible and dynamic, equally appealing to children or adults. Interestingly, it was Hergé’s practical knowledge of photo-engraving that taught him the possibilities and limits of print reproduction: the contour line is continuous and of a consistent width; there are no half-tones, hatching or shading – each scene is perfectly lit. This was the culmination of Hergé’s deceptively simple signature, the ‘Clear Line’.
It wasn’t easy. The first complete Tintin albums were composed of approximately 700 pencil sketches, meticulously retraced onto a clean sheet, then individually retraced in ink, all by Hergé’s hand. “You can’t imagine how difficult it is,” he said. “It’s manual labour, as painstaking a job as a watchmaker’s. A watchmaker’s or a Benedictine monk’s. Or a Benedictine monk-watchmaker’s.”
But it was his skill in harmonising illustrations with typography for optimum impact that lead him naturally to graphic design. His first wife, Germaine Kieckens, said, “He was always interested in advertising. He had a huge admiration for the graphic designers of the day, like Léo Marfurt…. He believed for a long time that he could devote himself wholly to design. The success of Tintin decided otherwise.”
In the 1930s, Hergé opened his design studio, l’Atelier Hergé-Publicité, applying his Clear Line technique to posters, magazines, book covers and flyers. Key clients were Sabena Airlines, Camping magazine, Victoria chocolate and the À l’Innovation department store in Brussles for whom he designed posters, promotional material and signage. Unable to resist creating cartoon characters, he created a store mascot, ‘Tim the Squirrel’, influenced by the new Disney Studio characters.
But public demand for Tintin was such that in 1950, he resumed publishing whole albums full-time, now founding Studios Hergé on Brussels’ Avenue Louise. Says biographer Harry Thompson, The Adventures of Tintin was now transformed into an assembly line – “the artwork passing from person to person, with everyone knowing their part, like an artistic orchestra with Hergé as conductor”. Studios Hergé produced eight new Tintin albums, recolouring and reformatting two previously published ones. It continued releasing new publications until Hergé’s death in 1983.
Asked in a 1969 interview of what he thought the future might hold for comics, Hergé replied, “Comics in 2000? I think, I hope, that they will (at last!) be fully acknowledged … that they will finally become a fully-fledged art form in their own right, like literature
With this show – the first the Grand Palais has ever devoted to the ‘Ninth Art’ – Hergé follows the footprints of Picasso, Braque and Hopper. His lifelong path to the Grand Palais has been one Clear Line.
Hergé is at the Grand Palais, Paris until Jan 15 2017, grandpalais.fr