Homage to a famous Belgian

by Mike.Martin

In Louvain-la-Neuve, a university town near Brussels, fans of the Tintin comic books can get their fix of nostalgia at a gleaming new purpose-built museum dedicated to their creator, Hergé

The venue for the new Hergé Museum is Louvain-la-Neuve, a university town that is easily reachable by rail from Brussels (trains leave every 30 minutes; alight at the Université station) or by car, via the autoroute to Namur (E411), exit 8a – which is 33km from Brussels.

The building itself is a marvel, a modernist structure built by Christian de Portzamparc, which seems to be split into two blocks with a strip of glass down the middle. The bright colours and sharp angles create a wonderful effect inside, especially on a bright day.

The museum celebrates one of the world’s most famous cartoonists, Hergé, creator of schoolkids’ favourite Tintin. Hergé’s story is a fascinating one, especially during the Second World War. Christened George Remi, he took his initials, swapped them and came up with his monicker, and created a heroic, Boys’ Own-stye character that had many adventures with his dog Snowy.

The wonderful thing about this beautifully designed museum is that it can be read in two ways. Kids will love the bright colours, the models and toys on display and the cartoons, dating right back to his early doodles based on his time as a scout. Adults can see a virtual history of the world from the 1920s to the Cold War, including of course World War II. Most fascinating is an original cartoon with Tintin decrying Nazism – a brave thing for a Belgian in 1942, the date of the cartoon. The war even hangs heavily over Hergé’s design for a rocket – Tintin may use it to have an adventure in space, but it looks exactly like a V2 rocket used by the Nazis, and Hergé would certainly have seen one.

The original cartoons are in a very delicate state, so some parts of the museum are kept extremely dark, but that doesn’t detract from the joy of seeing them. You learn that Tintin was based on George’s brother Paul Remi, an army officer, and that he created many other characters – including Quick and Flupke. Hergé went on to create a studio to help produce the stories, as he was becoming increasingly exhausted with work, and his tangled private life didn’t help. The story of how he became sympathetic to the Chinese is also revealed, as is the sad fact that about 3 per cent of his plates are lost forever.

With Steven Spielberg announcing a new trilogy of Tintin adventures, starting with Secret Of The Unicorn in 2011 and with Jamie Bell as the voice of the boy, there has never been more interest in the output of Hergé. His widow Fanny Rodwell said: “I have dreamed about the Hergé Museum for a very long time. I always imagined it would be modern, airy, bright, colourful and unique, so as to captivate its visitors and honour such a legendary artist, while displaying the wide range of his talents. You may wonder why this museum isn’t located in Brussels, the artists’ birthplace. The difficulty of finding a suitable site for this important project was delaying the start of work, and time was slipping away. Then, one bright day destiny came knocking in the form of a warm and enthusiastic letter, and we were brought to this beautiful place in Walloon Brabant, which Hergé loved so much and which he portrayed so gracefully in his work. A great adventure was just beginning.”

A great adventure indeed. If you do fancy a Magritte/Hergé double-header, easily doable on a long weekend in Brussels (see my other Simonseeks guide, "Brussels: a surreal weekend with Magritte"), you might just notice one connection – Hergé’s Thompson and Thompson are dead ringers for Magritte’ s bowler-hatted, pinstriped men raining down on a Belgian town. Coincidence? It’s surreal enough to be true.