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Bart Beaty On The Belgian Comics: Frames Of Reference Show
posted June 13, 2009

imageBy Bart Beaty

Belgian Comics: Frames of Reference is the name of the exhibition hosted by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels until the end of this month. This is a solid show that might have been spectacular in another context.

In some ways, the show suffers by proximity to the new Magritte Museum that has just opened in the same building. The Magritte, as I saw, is literally packing them in with crowds waiting for openings. The comics show, on the other hand, was a good place to go to be alone. I spent almost four hours in the comics show and saw only five other visitors. Alas.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting show, and it is set up in two major parts. The first of these is free with an admission to the building. This offers a fairly general historical and thematic overview of Belgian comics for non-experts. The space is set off by three large frescoes, each of which pays homage to the history of comics, one by [Francois] Avril, one by Joost Swarte and one by Ever Meulen. I shouldn't have to tell you that each of these is gorgeous. Otherwise, the historical section wraps around the famous bronze statue of Tintin and Snowy, and provides a good background about the publishing context for the works, replete with examples. One thing that immediately struck me about the display of original pages was that the accompanying notes credited the writer and the artist and the publisher, something that most other shows do not do.

The main part of the exhibition was organized by creator, with 16 writer-artists represented and four writers. The presence of writers in the grouping was unusual, and, to my mind, extremely welcome, particularly in the context of an art museum. Indeed, the first two creators represented, Jean Van Hamme and Raoul Cauvin, are known for their writing, and each has work done in collaboration with various artists.

The way that the show was set up was interesting. Each section was marked by the presence of a large image from the creator's work, either hanging from the ceiling or projected onto the floor. An introductory text (French, Flemish, English) set the stage for the art. Anywhere from ten to sixteen pages were then displayed in traditional frames. Afterward, and slightly set off, each artist was asked to select five comics pages to show in the context of their work. Additionally, each was given a space to exhibit some physical artifacts, generally in a glass case.

The show actually starts poorly. Van Hamme and Cauvin each are represented by banal objects (a writing table and a lounging chair respectively). Hermann, the third artist, created his own parodic ready-made art object as an attack on modernism that seemed immature and pointless. At this point I was fearing the rest of the exhibition, although the pages by Jean Giraud, Paul Gillon, and Uderzo selected as influences were pulling me along. Francois Walthery was represented by Natacha pages and a collection of vinyl lps. For me, at this point, the best part was the original Barks page that he had selected among his five influences.

Marvano was the artist for me who began to turn the tide, largely because his associated pages were by Cosey, Herge, Emile Bravo and Alex Raymond, which struck me as an absolutely great grouping. Ptiluc displayed a BMW motorcycle alongside pages from Pacush Blues and art from the likes of Gotlib, Jano, Gilbert Shelton and Frank Margerin. At this point I was beginning to really get into the concept. The choices of influences was really compelling, and I would find myself looking at the original pages and attempting to anticipate who the various artists might choose.

Benoit Sokal and Frank Pe did little for me, although Pe had selected a lovely Hogarth Tarzan page. It was Didier Comes that set the standard for great influence pages. How could you possibly top this: a Krazy Kat full-color painted Sunday page, a Caniff Terry Sunday page, a Noel Sickles Scorchy Smith daily strip, a page from Ici Meme by Tardi and a Hugo Pratt Corto Maltese? Seriously, you can't do it. I probably stood on that one spot staring at those pages for half an hour.

Jean Dufaux was the third writer represented, and he was followed by Philippe Geluck, whose Le Chat is a cultural phenomenon in France that I personally cannot stand. He had a few large paintings, which were a nice change of pace from the line drawings on paper, and in his vitrine he had a few good gags, including a typewriter for the deaf (it types sign language symbols...). He was quickly followed by Francois Schuiten, whose originals are simply stunningly executed, even if, like me, you are not really attracted to the material itself. He also had a nice vitrine, with models based on his drawings, and an influence area to rival Comes: George McManus Sunday, Krazy Kat Sunday, Terry and the Pirates Sunday, Little Nemo... All this fantastic stuff was starting to make me woozy.

Jean-Philippe Stassen had arguably the best vitrine in the exhibition. His work on Africa is first-rate, and his case reflected his serious thought on the subject. Between two colonial maps of the Belgian Congo were a series of books that contributed to European colonialist attitudes, including a first edition of Heart of Darkness and Gide's Voyage au Congo. Oh, and he had pages by Mattotti and Eisner on display, too.

Yslaire, who works mostly digitally these days and so lacks originals, had computer screens on display alongside some of his earlier work and a Neal Adams Deadman page sitting next to Moebius and Bilal. That was great. Philippe Tome, the last writer included, was too predictable with Franquin, Greg, and Duba's Cubitus plus a display case carrying a bellboy's uniform. Johan De Moor struck a nice chord by including pages by his father, Bob De Moor, and his godfather, Willy Vandersteen, each legends of the field. At this point fatigue was starting to set in, however.

Herr Seele presented a piano into which he had carved his trademark character, Cowboy Henk. His nine originals were much larger than I would have guessed, and he chose pages by Herge, Crumb and Bushmiller as his influences, which was perfectly apt. Midam, who is responsible for the enormously popular Kid Paddle, had a great case featuring a ludicrously large battle-axe. He provided us with another Barks and also a Garfield Sunday. I'm not sure I had ever seen a Garfield page previously in my life, and I'm not sure how much richer my life is now that I have.

The last two artists were, for me, the most interesting. This was largely because their work was the most inline with the demands of museum exhibition, and so they looked least out of place in this context. Dominique Goblet showed 11 pages of her masterpiece, Faire semblant c'est mentir, which were smaller than I would have expected (particularly given how large her other originals are). She also showed two extremely large drawings made with Bic pens, one a landscape in red and the other a forest in green and purple. These were incredibly beautiful and the absolute highlight of the trip to the museum for me. Goblet also exhibited work by Jean-Christophe Menu, Ilan Manouch and Amanda Vahamaki, all of which was great.

The last artist was Thierry van Hasselt, one of the main forces behind Fremok. He brought us 16 pages of his forthcoming book, La Petite main, but the highlight was the video projection, which showed an animation of his work with Karin de Ponties on Brutalis. I had never seen this animation and always hoped to, so this was a great surprise on which to end the show.

The strength of the exhibition, obviously, was the tremendous breadth of work on display. Asking the artists to make their own selections proved interesting, and allowed the show to escape from the ridiculously reductive logic of a show like Masters of American Comics. There was no claim that these 20 were the "best" Belgian cartoonists, only that they are important living practitioners of the form who were asked to display their work and also to create something new with the constraints of the museum space. The addition of non-Belgian original art was an unexpected bonus that really elevated the show. Even in cases where I was not really interested in the featured artist, there was generally something worth seeing in their space.

The show is accompanied by a large catalog available in French and Flemish. Sadly, it does not include installation views of the vitrines nor does it include the pages by the influences. I would really have liked to have seen a book like this carry some commentary on those pages, and the absence seems like a missed opportunity.


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