Exhibition review: Joann Sfar, Basel, 6.4.-11.8.2019

Shortly after Tardi, Cartoonmuseum Basel celebrates another living legend of French comics.

As with Tardi, the Joann Sfar exhibition does a good job of showcasing the artist’s vast body of work. There are many original inked pages on display, mostly of Le chat du rabbin but also of lesser known comics such as L’Ancien Temps or Aspirine, as well as his watercolours for La Fontaine’s Fables, oil paintings in connection with his Je l’appelle monsieur Bonnard project, excerpts from his live-action film Gainsbourg, lots of one-panel cartoons (with German translations provided this time) and much more.

It is perhaps easier to say what we don’t get to see here, and there are two surprising omissions: one is Professeur Bell, a series of no less than 5 albums (the last three of which have been drawn by Hervé Tanquerelle). There are only some reading copies provided in the museum library, but no original art. The other omission, which I find more severe because it was my introduction to Sfar, is Donjon. Of course, Sfar only drew very few Donjon albums himself and merely co-wrote others. But it would have been interesting if the show had shed some light on the process of the writing collaboration between Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. In Basel, only a few Donjon album copies are (mis)placed in some kind of children’s section for the visitor to read, next to Petit Vampire

Another question one might ask is: are black-and-white ink drawings really representative of Sfar’s art? Can you talk about Sfar’s comics without mentioning Brigitte Findakly, who coloured most of them? When you think of e.g. Le chat du rabbin, you probably think of the grey cat with its large yellow-green eyes, the brown-skinned daughter of the rabbi and her colourful dresses, the light blue sky over Algiers… At least some side-by-side comparisons of inked and coloured pages would have been a sensible addition to this exhibition.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Advertisements

Exhibition review: Le Monde de Tardi, Basel

At age 72, after 50 years of making comics, Jacques Tardi is more than worthy of his own exhibition at the Cartoonmuseum. I can’t say how this Tardi exhibition, which ends on March 24, relates to the one at the 2015 Fumetto festival in Lucerne. Anyway, it’s always worth reminding people through such a show that the author of the WWI comics for which he is perhaps best known, C’était la guerre des tranchées and Putain de guerre, is the same who created the Belle Époque mystery series Adèle Blanc-Sec in the seventies, and who also authored the Nestor Burma detective comics, as well as the historical comic Le Cri du peuple in the early 2000s, and, most recently, the WWII comic Stalag II B, to name but a few. A dazzling array of comics, and the Basel exhibition covers them all.

The primary medium of presentation are framed original drawings, of which there are apparently more than 200 on display. Here, however, it becomes obvious why the exhibition is titled “Le Monde de Tardi” (and not “Die Welt des Tardi”): while the commentary texts on the walls are in German, no translation is provided for the French speech balloon texts. Which is a pity, given that Tardi is not only a masterly draughtsman but also a witty wordsmith. At least this aspect of Tardi can be appreciated in the library room of the museum which is well stocked with German translated editions of many of his albums. In the library one can also watch a film about Tardi in – again – French only: Tardi en noir et blanc, also available on YouTube with German audio.

My impression was that the previous exhibition I had seen at the Cartoonmuseum, Joe Sacco – Comics Journalist, had done a slightly better job at telling something about the artist himself and his working process instead of just the finished works. But this is a common shortcoming in comic exhibitions.

Le Monde de Tardi must be a highly enjoyable exhibition if you’re fluent in both French and German, but I doubt you get much out of it if you speak neither.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Exhibition review: Joe Sacco – Comics Journalist, Basel

Speaking of Joe Sacco, there is a Sacco exhibition currently shown at Cartoonmuseum Basel until April 24. There is a lot to see there: the exhibition starts with original drawings from Sacco’s early comics, of which I found the juxtaposition of a “Zachary Mindbiscuit” story from 1987 and “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” from 1990 (both unpublished until the 2003 collection Notes From A Defeatist) the most interesting. While already an accomplished draughtsman in 1987, it wasn’t until “More Women…” that Sacco started positioning his caption boxes in oblique angles, which would become one of his trademarks.

Sacco’s main works, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza, are all represented through original drawings (10 episodes from Palestine alone) as well. Another fascinating exhibit in this context is an arrangement of Sacco’s notebooks and reference photographs, next to the corresponding pages from the published comic. It becomes clear that while he gathered plenty of material, he took some liberties when it came to making a comic out of them – particularly in Footnotes, in which he re-imagines events that happened 50 years ago.

Insights into Sacco’s work process can be also gained from three short documentary films displayed on a screen (6 minutes in total), produced in 2011 by Portland Monthly and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: “Reporting from the field”, “Tools of the trade” and “Inspiration of Robert Crumb” (also available online). Another section of the exhibition traces the history of comics journalism before Sacco by way of “special artists” and reportage drawing from the 19th century on.

reference photograph (still frame from "Reporting From the Field")

Reference photograph (still frame from “Reporting from the field”).

There is some more original art on display from Sacco’s more recent comics, which I’m not too crazy about. In the museum’s library, all of Sacco’s published works can be read in German and English. And then there’s another sensational exhibit: The Great War from 2013 (or 2014, according to the museum), in which Sacco tells the events of one day of a British military unit in WWI. The publication is subtitled An Illustrated Panorama, but I gather it comes in the form of a leporello (“accordion”) book. In the exhibition it is arranged in a semicircle. Not a comic, strictly speaking, but definitely an eye-catcher.

an exhibition view with Joe Sacco's "The Great War" (photograph by Cartoonmuseum Basel)

An exhibition view with Joe Sacco’s “The Great War” (photograph by Cartoonmuseum Basel).

In an exhibition leaflet, Sacco is quoted (my translation): “Journalism is about countering the endless lies, even though it sometimes reiterates them – intentionally or unintentionally.” In this regard, journalism and scholarship are very much alike.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Exhibition review: The Adventures of the Ligne claire, Basel

There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary ligne claire artist, Exem

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary artist, Exem.

There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:

Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.'” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the "atom style" artist Javier Mariscal.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the “atom style” artist Javier Mariscal.