Brussels is fiercely proud of Hergé, its most famous son – but is cagey about the more awkward details of the artist’s life. Our arts editor pays a visit on the weekend of the Tintin film premiere
‘TINTIN, back in Brussels,” declares the giant poster towering above Place De Brouckère. It’s the morning of Saturday 22 October, and a few hours later the square’s ornate cinema will host the red-carpet world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Crowds are already filling the streets – and, in particular, surrounding the Hotel Amigo, just around the corner.
“Most of the women are here for Daniel Craig,” Didier Marchette tells me, “but he isn’t coming.” Spielberg is here, he adds, “but I hear he already left the hotel.” He’s probably right – there is little this city tour guide doesn’t appear to know about Tintin-related goings-on in Brussels. We have just walked from the Place du Jeu-de-Balle, whose lively flea market was the inspiration for the opening scene of The Secret of The Unicorn (both book and film), in which the discovery of an old model ship sends Tintin off on his most popular globe-trotting adventure. “If anything is stolen from you, it will come here eventually,” Marchette quips as we stroll past stalls of antiques and nick-nacks – a remark that’s perhaps not the most obvious advert for the city, but typical of his straight-talking style.
“Tintin back in Brussels” is an odd choice of slogan. As two hours in Marchette’s company amply demonstrates, for decades now Tintin and his creator, Hergé, have been as inescapable in Brussels as bagpipes are in Edinburgh. As well as being the main attraction at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, the Museum of Original Figurines (or Moof as it’s better known) and the city’s new Hergé Museum, Tintin can be spotted on murals at Stockel Metro Station, Gare du Midi, and Rue de L’Étuve, and in galleries such as Le Village de la BD, also a lively cafe and comic shop, named after the French term for comics, bandes desinées – “BD” for short.
The most devoted Hergé fans may also want to seek out the street where he was born, Rue Philippe Baucq, and his grave in the Dieweg cemetery. Hergé, unlike the globetrotting Tintin, was a homebody who spent the vast majority of his life in Brussels, and his biography is embedded in the streets of the city. A miniature Tintin map produced by Visit Brussels will point you towards all of the places above.
Hergé’s loyalty to Brussels has had all sorts of knock-on effects. Most obviously, his pioneering success – he was one of the first cartoonists in Europe to use speech bubbles, among numerous other techniques we now take for granted – helped create a comics culture in the city that stretches far beyond Tintin. As well as the Hergé murals, over 40 murals by artists who followed in his wake are now scattered around the city centre. The first were commissioned in the early 1990s, and their numbers continue to grow. Hergé would surely have loved this. The Belgian Comic Strip Center, opened in 1989, was initially conceived purely as a Hergé museum, but when his friend Guy Dessicy suggested the idea back in the 1970s, Hergé insisted it should showcase comics art in general.
It’s a shame that Hergé, who died in 1983, never lived to see it. Housed in a strikingly beautiful Art Nouveau building designed in 1906 by Victor Horta, it now draws 200,000 visitors a year. In a neat piece of timing, as Spielberg’s film is released it is showing a lovingly curated exhibition devoted to Bob De Moor – Hergé’s closest collaborator for the last 30 years of his life – and his love of the sea. De Moor, who died in 1992, began working with Hergé after The Secret of The Unicorn and its seafaring sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure, but helped him created The Red Sea Sharks, a later ocean-bound adventure. The exhibition includes photos of the two men on a cargo freighter in 1956, making sketches for that book, as well as black-and- white plates from De Moor’s own series, Cori the Cabin Boy.
Hergé’s devotion to his home city had some less positive results. When the Nazis occupied Brussels, he stayed and worked rather than flee or join the resistance, a decision that shaped the rest of his life. While the Tintin adventures from the war years were always politically neutral – unlike pre-war stories such as the thinly veiled anti-Nazi satire King Ottokar’s Sceptre, which could have got Hergé killed had Hitler been paying closer attention – the fact that they were published in a Nazi-run newspaper, Le Soir, was enough for Hergé to be accused of collaboration. At the end of the war he was briefly jailed, and would have struggled to restore his reputation if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Raymond Leblanc, a resistance hero who became his publisher. Indebted to Leblanc, Hergé then spent decades trying to wrestle his independence back, often at the expense of his health. As late as the 1960s, Hergé was powerless to stop Leblanc making some pretty shoddy Tintin TV cartoons, which he hated.
It’s a fascinating story, but one Hergé’s Brussels-based champions seem reluctant to tell, despite the fact that Hergé emerges from a fair reading of it with integrity intact. The Hergé Museum, built with private money from the Hergé Foundation in 2009, offers a particularly sanitised version of its subject’s life story, acknowledging that Hergé and Leblanc fought “tooth and nail” for creative control but offering no explanation as to why. It’s a pity; the museum, in desperately trying not to upset anyone, ends up saying very little of interest.
Worse, no-one involved seems to share Hergé’s gift for simple, linear storytelling. While there’s a fascinating collection of artefacts there – from posters Hergé made during his early years as a graphic artist in the 1930s, to models built during his meticulous research for Destination Moon – chronologically it’s all over the shop. It randomly and confusingly includes the statuette from The Broken Ear, for example, in a cabinet apparently devoted to Professor Calculus, who isn’t in that story.
I found myself wondering who the museum is for, other than Hergé’s family. Too bland to be that compelling for adults, it’s not that child-friendly either. While the museum is certainly striking – shaped like giant, quirkily angled panels from a Tintin cartoon – it’s difficult to imagine many kids being excited by the endless rooms of black-and-white drawings in glass cases. Moof, with its numerous models – including giant figures of Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock on the moon, plus an entire Smurf village – is more fun. And unlike the Hergé Museum, which is almost an hour’s train journey from the city centre, it’s also easy to get to, right underneath Brussels’ central railway station.
Celebrating local legends is a tricky business, though. There has been much infighting over Hergé’s legacy over the years, but on the whole Brussels pays tribute to its most famous son with a mix of enthusiasm and respect that you can’t help but admire. It’s significant that Spielberg’s film had its first screening there. The whole Tintin industry is so firmly entrenched in Brussels that it would have felt like an insult to have it anywhere else. Sony, the company behind the premiere, got around this with an early afternoon screening in Brussels, then a slightly more glitzy evening one in Paris, appeasing Hergé’s home town while not quite breaking an industry rule that European premieres of Hollywood films tend to be in either Paris or London.
While Spielberg zoomed off to Paris in a customised Tintin train, Visit Brussels was making the most of the attention the film focused on the city, inviting journalists from across the world to a gala dinner at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where guests included Guy Dessicy himself. It was an exhilarating moment for any Tintin fan – Dessicy, now in his late eighties, is one of the last men standing from Hergé’s generation of comic book artists, and still full of life and mischievous charm.
Often, though, if you want an objective, warts-and-all account of Hergé’s life, you need to go to unofficial sources, far from Brussels. I recommend the late British TV producer Harry Thompson’s unauthorised biography, Hergé and his Creation, published in 1991 and a far more entertaining and informative read than the various official books put out since then by Moulinsart.
And in the gift shop of the Belgian Comic Strip Center I found another gem. The Adventures of Hergé, by Bocquet, Fromental and Stanislas, is a French comic-book biography drawn in the style of a Tintin book, with numerous scenes cheekily echoeing famous moments from Tintin stories.
To my surprise, it includes scenes of Hergé in jail after the war, cheating on his first wife in a hotel room (with Fanny Vlamynck, who he later married and spent the rest of his life with), and encountering a spectacularly rude and foul-mouthed Andy Warhol. Affectionate but irreverent, it’s like nothing you’ll find in the Hergé Museum, and all the better for it.