Autumn 2008

Hergé’s adventures in the world of graphics

The Art of Hergé, Inventor of Tintin, Volume 1: 1907-1937

By Philippe Goddin
Translated by Michael Farr
Last Gasp (San Francisco), dollars 39,95

I frequently have lunch at a Belgian café in New York called Le Petite Abeille (the little bee), decorated entirely with Tintin artefacts, including toys, posters, book covers and facsimiles of original drawings. Although the food is adequate, the environment is extraordinary. Where else can one find what appear to be Hergé’s rough sketches of Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and Thomson and Thompson in the men’s room?

The Art of Hergé, Inventor of Tintin is obviously not a bathroom, but it is a depository of fabulous and rare Tintin-ania, and a solidly researched history of this extremely influential artist (whose real name was Georges Prosper Remi, 1907-83). This is a companion to The Adventures of Hergé, Creator of Tintin (Last Gasp, 2008) by former Reuters reporter Michael Farr, a richly illustrated biography. While this earlier volume traces the amazing accomplishment of creating and propagating the Tintin brand, it also reveals that Hergé was an accomplished graphic designer and typographer, who spent much of his time doing advertising. His bold pen and ink drawings in the manner of woodcuts or linocuts show another graphic side rarely seen before this volume. Likewise his interest in abstract, minimalist and Pop art (all of which are curiously exhibited in his own work) suggests a side to Hergé that was not entirely sanguine being a comics artist.

In turn, The Art of Hergé focuses more on the artwork, much of it a revelation to me, and largely influenced by the prevailing art moderne style yet also taking it further to more innovative stylistic levels. Although comics were what he was known for (and generous examples of his earliest appearing in Le Petit Vingtième are reproduced here), Hergé was a prolific, if lesser known, Deco exponent. His extensive studio archives reveal projects for a range of clients including Gastrhéma vitamins, Medulla wools and Sorange Champagne. Posters for Van Schelle Sports (1931) and the newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle (1934) show respectively the influence of Jean Carlu and Cassandre. His 1934 book cover for L’Oiseau de France exhibits a mastery of comic figuration, and the poster for the 1932 Political Congress of Youth poster shows he could render in a romantically heroic manner with the best of them. He was also a more than capable typographic trademark designer in the German tradition, with his 1932 logos for Assouine, Wing, and Maccoline cotton fabrics. And aside from his Tintin strips he created some wordless political comics satirising Hitler, including ‘The German Military Coup’ for Vers le Vrai.

It is not surprising that Hergé has been left out of most (in fact all) graphic design history books: his virtuosity was not as a posterist or typographer. Yet, while this book is valuable for examining Tintin’s origins through reproductions of original drawings and sketches, the tangential design material – the posters, book covers, and type treatments that Studio Hergé was commissioned to do – is just as key to Hergé’s career. According to Goddin, the studio ‘was working at full capacity with orders flowing in’, Hergé had been applauded in graphics trade magazines for his ‘revival of the graphic arts’ in advertising, and he pursued ‘publicity work’ for many years.

Who would have guessed that the creator of Tintin made integral contributions to Belgian graphic design history? In fact, without intending to be such, The Art of Hergé is an important supplement to the current canon of design. You don’t have to be a Tintin fan to appreciate this book, which should be on the reading lists of all design history classes.