Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Herge's Tintin vs Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents

You may ask what 17th century Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens could possibly have in common with 20th century cartoonist Hergé, responsible for the Tintin comic book series?  We recently attended two separate lectures on each of these artists that shared a surprisingly common theme.

The Art Gallery of Ontario sponsored a talk by National Gallery of London curator David Jaffé that focused Rubens' masterpiece "Massacre of the Innocents", the highlight of the Ken Thomson donations to the AGO.

 Jaffé described how Rubens carried around a copybook throughout his career and amassed an inventory of sketches from images in other paintings or drawings that appealed to him.  Jaffé was able to isolate individual characters within the Massacre painting (from babies to despairing women to raging soliders) and trace back to the original works that were the possible inspirations.

For example, he traced the central figure of the executioner with a baby raised about his head to a similar image in Michaelangelo's Resurrection.  Other sources included paintings on the same topic by Raphael, Frans Floris and Tintoretto.

Rubens studied anatomy and écorché (drawings of muscular tissue under the skin) and was especially influenced by the sculptures of Willem van Tetrode.  Jaffé noted that the neck muscles of the woman in the red dress and the torso muscles of the main soldier were attributed to various Tetrode bronzes.  He talked about how Rubens had the knack to find a reference image and could rotate it in his mind, moving limbs or muscles to meet the compositional needs of his own painting.  Basically Rubens' techniques were the precursor of Photoshop.

While Jaffé's main topic was interesting and his research impressive, I found his one-note talk to be a bit dry and academic.  He showed picture after picture of the referenced art without showing the corresponding images within the Massacre painting to accentuate his points.  He provided very few other details about the painting that would have been interesting - like why this version of Massacre of the Innocents stood out above the many others that came before or after, or how Ken Thomson came to acquire it.

One anecdote he did convey was to describe how the original owner, Carenna of Antwerp, hung the painting up high above a fireplace, as a "chimney piece".  Although the Massacre of the Innocence is a huge painting that spans floor to ceiling at the AGO, in its first home, it was apparently dwarfed by massive tapestries that hung beside it.  Imagine what tall ceilings this mansion must have had!

The second talk we attended was  held at the Lilian H Smith public library which houses the notable Osborne collection of early children's books.  An annual lecture is held in memory of librarian Sybille Pantazzi. This year the featured topic was Hergé and Tintin, in anticipation of the new Steven Spielberg movie "Adventures of Tintin" about to hit the theatres.   The lecture was given by "Tintinologist" Michael Farr who has written multiple books on Tintin, met Hergé and was given access to his personal files and materials.

Like Rubens, Hergé used people and places that he knew of or had seen as inspiration for his comics and kept photos, newspaper clippings and other materials that detailed these sources.  Farr's talk and main theme paralleled Jaffé's as he showed many examples of Tintin cartoons side by side with the images that influenced them.  Unlike Jaffé, Farr peppered these comparisons with amusing and illuminating stories that kept the audience entertained.

It was sad to see the low tech ancient overhead foil projector that was used to display these pictures (an indication of budgetary deficiencies in the library system?).  I felt sorry for the poor little woman who's job it was to squat in front of the projector and place the next foil as Farr spoke.

Tintin was modeled after Hergé's brother Paul both in facial structure and haircut. Paul was a soldier, and after being teased and called "Major Tintin", he tried to shed this image by getting a radical crewcut.  Hergé countered by creating a new villainous character Colonel Sponz with the same haircut.  Tintin's fox terrier Mileu (translated to Snowy in English) was a tribute to his first girlfriend Mary Louise (Malou).

 The twin detectives Thomson and Thompson were based on Hergé's father and brother, who had big moustaches and were partial to bowler hats and umbrellas.  They looked similar to the men found in this newspaper clipping found in Hergé's files.   Professor Cuthbert Calculus was modeled after Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard.  However Piccard was too tall for the comic frame so Calculus had to be shrunk down to fit the size of the printed squares.

Farr showed examples where Hergé copied entire scenes from some source, perhaps a photo or postcard and seemed to just insert Tintin in the middle of it, almost in a cut and paste fashion.  In this example of a Shanghai Street scene, the wording on the banners in the comic strip mirror the photo exactly.

As a roving reporter and adventurer, Tintin traveled to exotic locations around the world including Russia, Middle East and even the moon.   When Hergé drew images of China, he was introduced to several Chinese students who helped him add accuracy and authenticity to his renderings.

One particular student, Zhang Chongren, became a lifelong friend who Hergé turned into the character Chang Chong Chen.  Zhang helped Hergé with Chinese translations in the comics and occasionally injected his own political motivations with phrases like "Down with Imperialism" and "Down with Japanese Oppression".  One cartoon strip that showed Chang Chong Chen on the harbour waving goodbye to a ship carrying Tintin was matched to a photo containing an identical ship.

Hergé lost track of his friend Zhang during the Japanese occupation of China and then was unable to visit him in China during the cultural revolution due to the Tawainese stamp on his passport.  Towards the end of Hergé's life, he was finally reunited with his friend but it was bittersweet since Hergé was dying of cancer at that point.

Both the Rubens/Massacre of the Innocents and Hergé/Tintin lectures assumed that you knew something of the subject matter and did not delve too deeply into the basics.  The Farr presentation was much more satisfying and enlightening due to all the little stories that he told, which enhanced your understanding and appreciation of the topic.

Both lectures showed how these two disparate artists were each majorly influenced by their surroundings.  The common directive to writers is "Write what you know".  I guess this applies to artists as well.

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