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 THE BELGIAN ILLUSTRATED BOOK: 1918-2004  

The below text accompanying the exhibition was originally written in French by Jan Baetens, University of Leuven, Belgium. Charles A. Porter, Professor Emeritus, French Department, Yale University, completed the translation with Catherine Labio, Associate Professor, French Department, Yale University.

"Belgian illustrated book" in this exhibition refers to illustrated books produced by authors of Belgian nationality, either Dutch- or French-speaking, without taking into account the place of publication of these books. The illustrated book is anything but a "secondary" sector in the literary and artistic production of Belgium. For the Belgian book has, in fact, a calling to be illustrated. Four major factors contribute to this "tropism."

First, there is the great influence of the pictorial tradition of the country, going back to the Middle Ages (let us not forget that the "Flemish primitives" were not all Dutch-speaking and that the boundaries of the territory called "Flanders" did not at all coincide with those of the present northern part of Belgium). Yet the presence of the past is never passive. Interest in the models of yore and traditional techniques has never prevented the exploration of a new imaginary or the invention of often revolutionary forms. The work of Frans Masereel, which opens this exposition, does not arise from folklore, despite the almost primitive character of the techniques he uses, and the work of Olivier Deprez, which constitutes a contemporary echo of the woodcut that Masereel brought back into favor, proves to what an extent a traditional technique can lead to a totally original graphic style.

Another factor is the peripheral situation of both the North and South of Belgium, in relation to the cultural centers that are Paris, for the French-speaking sphere, and Amsterdam, for the Dutch-speaking sphere. Since the birth of modern publishing the "major" genres have come to be the prerogative of publishing houses located in the centers, while the provinces inherited productions considered minor, a tendency strengthened by the capitalistic concentration of the publishing industry. Novels and essays are published in Paris and Amsterdam, but religious literature (particularly in the 19th century), comics (in the 20th century), poetry (in both the 19th and 20th centuries) are often abandoned to regional publishers, especially Belgian. Belgium is a land of poets, and the poetic spirit permeates not only texts (the Belgian novel, for example, is often a "poetic novel") but also and especially pictures, conceived and executed in a close collaboration among writers, draftsmen or photographers, typesetters and publishers. The small-scale operation of numerous publishers permits forms of cooperation that are unthinkable in larger structures. The Belgian surrealist book offers superb examples of this spirit of collaboration, which is also a spirit of resistance: resistance to the world as it is (for political engagement is no mere word) but also resistance to seriousness, Belgian literature having a pronounced taste for farce and self-mockery.

To that must be added, at least in the case of the French-language production, the great Belgian tradition of counterfeit publication, which peaked between 1830 and 1850, and has endowed Belgium with a solid graphic infrastructure: if little is edited there, it has always been very well printed (including the copiously illustrated beaux livres). Today, of course, this kind of counterfeit no longer exists, but Belgium has kept from the tradition of piracy a preference for difference, both formally and economically. Thence arises a very clear preference for works that distinguish themselves from their counterparts by more abundant iconography and especially lower prices. Belgium is not afraid of the inexpensive, "bargain," book, and bibliophiles, who naturally exist there, are perfectly satisfied with popular editions. Such receptiveness by "ordinary" books to what elsewhere would be distinctive features of "fine" books sometimes gives Belgian products a motley appearance. On the other hand the "serious" book is not afraid of maintaining a connection with the sometimes rather vulgar coloring of mass production books, to the point that a tantalizing hesitation seems to mark the distinction between the top and bottom of the scale.

Finally, the smallness of the domestic market as well as the constant back-and-forth between the linguistic communities have kept Belgian authors always aware of the possibility of circulating their work in other languages and other cultures; such a widening of their world has encouraged them to privilege picture over text. It is thus not surprising that in Belgium illustrators and artists are regarded on the same level as authors: the draftsman or engraver is also an "author," and that happy confusion has become a part of the country's ways. One result is that even the writers themselves-think of Michaux or Dotremont, but the examples could be multiplied-hesitate less than in France to cross the divide separating writing from drawing. When they set out to draw it is never in order to undermine the text: the written and the visual are linked, they blend rather than fight.

One of the great singularities of the Belgian book-and this may be characteristic of "minority" cultures-is the ease with which it mingles legitimate and popular culture, art and commerce, innovation and the exploitation of stereotypes. In Belgium the frontiers between these fields seem more porous than in the "major cultures." The Belgian illustrated book, from this point of view, is less subject to specialization. In this matter the status of the bande dessin�e (comic strip or book) is quite symptomatic. Very early this genre, which experienced a phenomenal rise after the Second World War, took its place in the general culture of the North as well as the South. The bande dessin�e was read, appreciated, created, commented, used, put to work in the most varied contexts, without too much condemnation from purists or the keepers of the temple of culture with a capital "C." For the cultivated American public, which grew up with less esteem for "comics" and is unsure what to make of "graphic novels," the example of Belgium could serve as a model for a more harmonious cohabitation of forms and genres.


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The Origins: Frans Masereel

Throughout its long history xylography (woodcut or wood engraving) has often bonded closely with narrative, particularly in the north of Europe. The woodcuts of Frans Masereel, born in 1889 in Blankenberghe on the Belgian coast, should certainly be placed in the lineage of Schongauer and Durer, who first exploited brilliantly the graphic and narrative resources of xylography. However resolute their modernity, the woodcuts of Masereel should thus be understood as part of a long tradition. Nevertheless the first half of the twentieth century completely renewed the woodcut: think of the works of the German expressionists (Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner). The use of wood cut with the grain rather than across the grain permitted a new kind of cut that is more brutal and less detailed, although the soberer style of the French xylographers of the period (Dufy or Vallotton are good examples of this French school) should also be taken into account.The work of Frans Masereel must be situated in this new context of woodcutting. The renewal that occurs in these years has rediscovered the kind of inspiration that characterizes pioneers in a field.

As D�rer had already learned, Masereel (who also was a painter) found in the woodcut an inexhaustible source of creativity. Paradoxically, its reserve of creativity and its creative freedom are doubtless owed to the strict technical constraints imposed by xylography, which oblige the artist to a resolute allocation of whites and blacks. It should also be noted that, however old woodblock printing may seem, its reproductibility assigns it de facto to the sphere of modern questioning: engraved images appear in books and the media and are thus in confrontation with the diffusion and heterogeniety of information as well as the different visual and literary codes that constitute a newspaper or a book.

Masereel published woodcuts in 1917 in the journal Les Tablettes and the newspaper La Feuille. That same year he also created and published an ensemble of woodcuts in response to poems of Emile Verhaeren. Throughout his life Masereel explored the possibilities of his favorite medium, and if he looked for points of contact with other modes of expression (he illustrated a number of writers of his time, Romain Rolland, Verhaeren, Sternheim, Zweig, and many others) with different host media, he also created autonomous graphic books in which the narrative unfolds image by image, creating thus a genre that lies somewhere between illustration and the bande dessin�e. However much the author was aware of the social and political dramas of his time, as his work demonstrates, he also notably made a self-conscious use of the woodcut as narration and the book. Often Masereel pictured himself in his books, not as a simple person but as a xylographer.

The challenges of xylography were the driving force behind Frans Masereel's creativity. However old a technique it may be, it has shown, thanks to Masereel, that it can redistribute and reinvigorate the characteristics of artistic practice. Technical simplicity paid off for Masereel and the art of this period, and this is the major lesson of the Flemish artist who, from a simple and archaic process managed to elaborate a complex, dense, modern, and in many ways exemplary production.

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Hergé

If Herg� is considered-accurately, moreover-to have invented the ligne claire (clear line) in the bande dessin�e and to have promoted the genre to the rank of real art, it must be recognized that he found the ligne claire only after long and painful effort. His first designs and even first albums have a certain clumsiness to them, notably as concerns the insertion of text into the interior of the panel. Having at first used the European system (and particularly, in this instance, the French system) of panels with underline captions, such as are found for instance in the work of Christophe (La Famille Fenouillard), he soon profited from his reading of American comics to introduce balloons. This revolutionary innovation presented however a problem, since the presence of both text and image in the same space at first strongly unbalanced the image, slipped as well as possible into the space left available by a literally overwhelming text.

The multiple constraints that bore on his work gradually led Herg� to "clarify" his line and his style. Time constraints: the need to produce a great deal, quickly (the Tintin series in the 1930's is but one of the multiple occupations of Herg�, who did not immediately realized the importance of this character). Material constraints: the use of poor-quality paper and the expense of color printing, and then, during the war, the restrictions on paper and thus the reduction in the number of square centimeters that could be used for bandes dessin�es "forced" him to create a kind of design that sacrifices everything but the essential. This essential is, however, not purely graphic. It would be a great mistake were one to limit the definition of the ligne claire to various technical matters: suppression of the shadowed parts, absolute submission of the colors (rendered first by shadings of gray, then, with improved financial conditions, colors, and finally four colors) to the contours, themselves more and more defined, use of prototypical personages, objects, and situations, which the great art of Herg� keeps from being stereotypes. Next to these graphic considerations in the narrow sense of the term it is important to stress that Herg�'s ligne claire is above all a narrative art: if the design is transparent and immediately readable, it is because the author takes great care to subsume his drawing into an always eminently readable narrative. The real constraint for Herg� is not visual but narrative.

It is not easy for a contemporary reader to get a clear idea of how inventive Herg� had to be. After he became a success his first albums reappeared in a uniform format (62 pages, 4 strips with each an average of three panels, and the coloring the responsibility of a studio which ended up by doing all the stages of the design with the exception of the first sketch). This "self-translation" meant not only the "normalization " of Herg�'s work but also a notable asepticization. The design and the narrative get more detailed, heavier, become more naturalistic. The favorable advent of facsimile editions, in greater and greater numbers in the past twenty years, has nevertheless made it possible to grant to the public access to this capital portion of the graphic heritage.

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The Bande Dessin�e Tradition

The authors of the classic or traditional Belgian bande dessin�e are often referred to, in both France and Belgium, as the Franco-Belgian School. Such a label is misleading in several ways. For one thing it is undeniable that the Belgian contribution has been incomparably more important than the French. On the other hand the adjective "Belgian" here is the problem, not only because of the divergences between the Dutch-speaking North and the French-speaking South, but also because of a cleavage among the French-speaking authors themselves. To put it in another way, the "Franco-Belgian School," which is especially a French-speaking Belgian School, is in fact double: besides the school of Brussels, surrounding the Tintin weekly magazine, there is also a Marcinelles (Charleroi) school, around the Spirou weekly magazine.

The extraordinary vitality and success of these two publications gave the genre the space and freedom that it needed in order to become a veritable social phenomenon and turned the bande dessin�e into an art or diversion as popular as, for instance, soccer or cinema. Extending the lessons of Herg� the Belgian bande dessin�e rapidly diversified, essentially along the dividing line of Tintin versus Spirou: the first style conforms better to social norms, the second is more irreverent (it is here that Franquin's Gaston Lagaffe, the best known and most anarchistic of the doux fain�ants [gentle dreamers and layabouts] is to be placed). However, for a long time the need to produce for the French market exercised a sobering effect on the French-speaking Belgian bande dessin�e. The dangers of censorship and the resulting economic sanctions doubtless confined the genre to the needs of a very young audience, still subject to family and school, unlike the much larger Belgian target audience.

The situation in Flanders, in the Dutch-speaking north of the country, was quite different. The Flemish authors worked exclusively for the domestic market and published not in magazines but, in a more old-fashioned way, in the daily newspapers. That explains their more rough-hewn style, as much in the case of graphic style as in the dialogue (still very marked by dialect), and also their greater liberty. Addressing itself to a clearly more composite public (children, adolescents, adults) the Flemish bande dessin�e was characterized by a spirit of derision not available to its French-speaking counterpart. When, in search of cultural legitimization the Flemish worked for the French-language magazines, they lost much of their punch and relevance (witness the famous case of Willy Vandersteen, who collaborated for a while with Tintin). Even today this difference of tone is immediately perceptible: it can be seen in the work of Kamagurka, the champion of absurd humor, not always idiotic but always very mean, and the work of Pieter de Poortere, who gives a very melancholic version of cruelty.

Having said that, the great formal renewal of the bande dessin�e is especially the achievement of the schools of Brussels and Marcinelles. Only those authors who published in Tintin and Spirou had access to the condition sine qua non of the genre's renovation: the possibility of using as work unit no longer the daily strip but the full printed page, double page, or series. Such an enlargement of space resulted in an astonishing enlargement of the color scheme. The creative explosion of the contemporary bande dessin�e would not have been possible without the springboard of practices that have perhaps unjustly been labeled traditional.

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Contemporary Bande Dessin�e

During the last decade of the twentieth century a great renewal of graphic and narrative forms has swept along with it a generation of authors of bandes dessin�es. The movement is Europe-wide but it finds a unique expression in Brussels with the creation of the Frigo Production collective (Frigo Production will become Fr�on and more recently Fr�mok, the coupling of Fr�on with Amok, a Parisian collective close to the spirit of the Brussels collective). The secessionist spirit of this movement is characterized by at least three fundamental traits:

  • A break with the Belgian school tradition of the ligne claire (but this statement must be tempered by a solid study of the relationship of this movement with Herg� in particular, and such a study does not yet exist)
  • Interdisciplinarity (exchanges with other forms of expression will be frequent)
  • Self-management (in this period it is a constant that the designers take over the control of their own publication, which will have consequences on many levels and not only as to the commercial management of the publishing house)

It is probably difficult to imagine such a system in the United States, where comics belong to the counter-culture more than they participate in "culture" (the use of comics by pop artists is ironic and does nothing to ennoble the genre). Nothing less than such a requirement exists, however, in the production of the Brussels artists, even if it is necessary to soften that a little and stress that the medium keeps nevertheless its popular and, in a certain way, uninstitutional connotations: happily so!

This rejection of the Belgian bande dessin�e tradition has given rise notably to an important development in the artist's panoply of tools, more commonly confined to pen or brush and India ink. Artists are now characterized by their technical choices and these choices in turn determine their graphic and narrative choices, for this generation of authors, in the order of creation of the bande dessin�e book--Dominique Goblet, Thierry van Hasselt, Vincenty Fortemps, Denis Deprez, Eric Lamb�, Jean-Christophe Long, Michael Matthys, Fr�d�ric Coch�, and Olivier Deprez, to name the most characteristic of them-has effected a revolution that has been directly or indirectly influenced by the efforts of writers and theorists such as Ricardou or Perec.

Engraving, photocopy, and silk-screen are the first media tried out by the collective. This first step will be a good school for becoming aware of the material and visual consequences of the parameters defining the production: the choice of paper, format, color (two- or four-color, even black and white), the graphic management of the cover . . . in short all those elements that influence more or less strongly the reading and, before that, the �criture (in the relatively open sense that Barthes gives to this term).

The works of the artists of what one might henceforth designate the Brussels school of the 90's are thus forged on an esthetic base that is resolutely modern.

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Surrealism, Cobra, Michaux

The surrealist period is not a simple period and, particularly, not a simple "interlude" in the history of the Belgian illustrated book. More than other artistic currents in the 20th century, surrealism attacked the separation of genres in the wake of Dada, which earlier had redealt the cards of the readable and the visible while radically exploding both visual and literary language, recomposing them both. Belgian surrealism was to flower in Brussels and La Louvi�re, creating circles where artists and poets mingled: one should really say artistepo�tes (artist-poet), so greatly were word and picture to fuse and exchange their nature, throwing the registers of writing and design into confusion.

The characteristic example of Magritte illustrates massively the interpenetration of letter and image that dominates the visual and literary poetics of Belgian surrealism, which proceeds by the montage of disparate and incommensurable elements in order to recreate meaning. The word becomes an integral part of the picture and the image takes over the book. The use of such techniques as collage, by Mesens notably, orients reading in a new direction. By extension the illustrated book changes status, becoming in some way the receptacle of the image and the mystery that emanates from it. This visual mystery contrasts with the text and in that way reinforces the poetic tension already contained in the word. Far from illuminating the text the illustration complicates its enigma and in so doing puts radically into question the classical relationship of the word and its referent.

This attempt to fuse two semiotic fields as apparently different as words and pictures, words and drawn signs, finds new resolutions in the Cobra movement. Even if basically Cobra does not break with the esthetic choices of surrealism, with its prerequisites of automatism or spontaneity, it can be emphasized that the boundary between writer and artist is going to be still further erased so as to allow access to a new plane. With Dotremont writing takes on a new form, "logogrammatizing" itself to the point of unreadability in order to gain a new, more graphic readability that is freer of a narrative that exalts ink, paper, and the act of the writer. It is doubtless at that level that the illustrated book for Cobra modifies the deal and wagers on a new readability, a new structure of the sign and the scriptural act, which is no longer exclusively drawing or exclusively writing but both at the same time.

In the same area Henri Michaux will also conduct his fusion of written and designed signs. The artist-poet creates alphabets, produces books whose meaning is sometimes carried by the words of the French language (a language to which Michaux will make many additions coming from the imaginary geography that he creates), sometimes carried by signs reflecting the subterranean movements of the writer's body. Word and meaning thus pass through a double filter and in so doing confuse their differences: for how could one not read the subterranean signs as prolongations of the words? Thus Michaux permits the text to gain entrance to a new territory and open itself to those things that both contest and extend it. For Michaux the illustrated book becomes a site where one can experience the sign in a physical, visual, concrete, and total manner.

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Broodthaers

It is widely recognized that Marcel Broodthaers, the greatest artist-thinker or thinker-artist that Belgium has ever had, started off as a poet. It is also known that as a poet he already liked to collaborate with visual artists and especially photographers. His break with poetry and the conceptual reorientation of his artistic career in no way stopped him from writing (which is still logical), nor from an abundant visual production (which may already be a little less logical), nor in particular from crossing words and images in a thousand and one ways (which would not be logical at all in any country but Belgium or without the great example of Magritte, whose influence on Broodthaers is no mystery).

Putting into question art, the artist, the museum, criticism, the medias, in short everything that made up the revolution of modern art in the 20th century, Broodthaers' work is distinctive not only for its very Belgian humor but also for his exceptional sensitivity to the way in which writing can be visualized, with a mingling of typography, layout, and overall design. He thus goes one better than the Coup de D�s of Mallarm�, by replacing the textual fragments by printed signs in a volume that features transparent pages.

In certain of his "projects," the most visible (and at times only really worked out) aspect is a corpus of texts whose graphic form has been carefully thought out. A bantering challenge to the museum goes along with a manifest love of what remains of words when the space is gradually emptied of images: titles, sketches, captions, catalogs, headlines, and so on. The text no longer names the image but takes its place. What is miraculous about Broodthaers is that the reader barely realizes this substitution.

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Contemporary Illustrated Books of Poetry & Artists' Books

In Belgium the boundary between the illustrated book of poetry and artists' books is often thin, to the extent that one might ask if such a distinction is worth keeping. On the one hand the book of poetry leads towards artists' books, while on the other artists' books try less to be a thing for bibliophiles than something different, in this case made-by-hand, unpublicized, and unique. Especially in the case of poetry, which tends to have rather small printings, the distinction between the "ordinary" illustrated book and the artists' books tends rapidly to fade.

Still-and this is a second Belgian particularity-this search for an elitism for the masses, symptomatically revealed by the coming together of the book of poetry and artists' books, is in no way limited to the single domain of poetry and engraving, the traditional places and vehicles for the beau livre in literature. To illustrate the poetic text Belgian books have no fear of calling on photography or the comic strip, traditionally considered less appropriate for raising the cultural status of the text. And the text deemed worthy of illustration is not necessarily poetic: the diary of Sophie Podolski or children's book of Nicolas Ancion serve here as examples of the Belgian indifference to traditional categories. Few literatures, both to the north and the south of the country, are as open to the image in all its forms as the Belgian literatures. It is no chance, then, that in Belgium artists move with such ease to writing (there are numerous examples in the domain of children's literature): everybody accepts the contribution of the image as fundamental.

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Olivier Deprez & Jan Baetens

Olivier Deprez and Jan Baetens collaborated even before deciding to work together. The books and works that each brought to the attention of the other have led, since their first encounter, to the reciprocal questioning of what each was doing separately. The French-speaking artist Olivier Deprez started to write, as a critic at first and then as poet and diarist. The Dutch-speaking critic and theoretician Jan Baetens-though he has never drawn-began to think visually of his own incipient practice as a writer.

This influence at a distance became a real collaboration in 2003 with the project of Construction d'une Ligne TGV [Construction of a High-Speed Railway Line]. Alternating sequences of poems and sequences of woodcuts, this book tries to go beyond the usual frontiers of text and image without nevertheless dissolving their differences. Avoiding narration, the text leaves it to the image to tell the stories; the image, refusing facile graphic abstraction, communicates to the written part the sometimes opaque materiality of a real presence on the page, more exactly on the paper of which the woodcuts reveal (and make perceptible to the hand) the slightest fibers.

Although the composition of Construction d'une Ligne TGV still tries as much as possible to conserve the autonomy and equivalence of the two poles, the project was soon felt to be too classical by the two authors. In one of the sequels to this book, Je Me Crois Tout � Coup � Lisbonne [I suddenly think I'm in Lisbon], Olivier Deprez undertakes a complete transformation of the text of Jan Baetens. The initiative is transferred to the artist, but the latter becomes a writer in the second degree. Profiting from his experience with an immense work-in-progress on the American poet Ammons, Ithaca, a bold melange of all the genres and all the signs that the hand can inscribe in a notebook, Olivier Deprez has invented a graphic universe in which text and image blend together into graphic matter, in order to explore the matter of a determined support and technique in which form and meaning, texture and representation, join together like the front and back sides of the same page.

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