Cover of the exhibition catalogue. © Rmn
Astérix, the plucky mustachioed Gaul created by the cartoonist Albert Uderzo and the scenarist René Goscinny, is 50 years old this autumn. Where better to celebrate …
Cover of the exhibition catalogue. © Rmn
Astérix, the plucky mustachioed Gaul created by the cartoonist Albert Uderzo and the scenarist René Goscinny, is 50 years old this autumn. Where better to celebrate the occasion than the magnificently restored frigidarium of the Musée de Cluny, one of Paris’s remaining survivals of ancient Lutèce? Menhirs are, for a few weeks at least, almost as plentiful in Paris as in the Gallic Village, home to Astérix, his fat boar-chasing friend Obélix and Panoramix the Druid.
Anglo-Saxons may sneer or wonder if comic books are an art worthy of a museum exhibition. “These French are crazy!” they might say, paraphrasing Astérix. Fifty years ago, French film critics turned directors – Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer – obliged the Anglo-Saxons to take Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks seriously, and now the French call comic books “the ninth art.” What next? But then again, New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented a diverting exhibition on the James Bond series in 1987, proving that it does not exclude high-quality popular entertainment.
Astérix is popular entertainment of extremely high quality, undoubtedly the best that has ever been done anywhere in comic books. It appeals on all levels, to children and grown-ups, to highbrows and lowbrows. Children laugh at the absurdly funny characters and the knockabout slapstick comedy, while grownups appreciate the plays on words and the subtle satire.
Is it art? Is the question even worth asking? The exhibition’s catalogue, for once physically light and inexpensive, spends a lot of time justifying Albert Uderzo’s right to appear in a museum, quoting Umberto Eco’s remark with regard to Uderzo that “the comic book is an art” when “the artist proceeds from an artistic inspiration.” But Uderzo has said that he doesn’t consider Astérix a work of art; he prefers to get on with his work while his more serious-minded admirers bestow laurels on him.
From time to time, more or less direct references to undisputed masterpieces of Western art show up in Uderzo’s drawings. He has brilliantly parodied Breughel’s Wedding Feast, Géricault’s Wreck of the Medusa and Watteau’s Departure from the Ile of Cythère, among others. Panels on the fence around the museum’s magnificent gardens at the intersection of Boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel illustrate several such confrontations. Why not an exhibition at the Grand Palais on Uderzo and the Old Masters?
The magazine Lire has just produced a special edition in which Goscinny and Uderzo are acclaimed as great writers. Roll over Proust and tell Céline the news! That is a little like English dons and literary critics who explain their love of P.G. Wodehouse – one can’t say their “passion” for P.G. Wodehouse, passion being an emotion entirely alien to the Wodehouse universe – by noting the master’s virtuoso use of the English language and his allusions to well-known lines of English verse.
Since Goscinny’s death in 1977, Uderzo has done both the writing and pictures, although Goscinny’s name appears on each new Astérix volume, just as Ian Fleming’s does on the James Bond films. Goscinny was the master scenarist, but Uderzo has seamlessly kept up the good work. Posted on the frigidarium’s walls are phrases that first appeared in Astérix comic books and have now become part of the language, among them “Ils sont fous ces Romains” (“These Romans are crazy) and its corollary, “Ils sont fous ces Gaulois,” and the punning “Il ne faut pas parler sèchement à un numide” (literally, “Never speak drily to a Numidian”). The French language was already going strong before Goscinny and Uderzo – one can’t say the pair invented it the way Shakespeare did English – but they have added to it.
Setting Astérix so far in the past gave Uderzo and Goscinny an ideal vantage point from which to regard the present. The Astérix albums are rich in satirical references to such present-day or recent phenomena as modern architecture or Sean Connery’s James Bond – the Druid agent “ZéroZéroSix,” for example, introduces “a liqueur distilled from grain in Caledonia” into the Gallic Village in L’Odysée d’Astérix), while a feminist uprising against machism occurs in La Rose et la Glaive. The streets of Lutèce are plagued by traffic jams just like those of modern Paris, and when Astérix and Obélisk cross the Channel in Astérix chez les Bretons, they find that the inhabitants drive their chariots on the left side of the road. These British are crazy!
Some have suggested that the Gauls’ resistance to the Romans refers to that of the French during the Occupation, while others maintain that it is a subtle protest against American hegemony and globalization in general. Uderzo, inspired by childhood sojourns in Brittany, situated the Gallic Village in ancient Armorica, and Bretons have seen a parallel between the Breton resistance to the French crown before 1532 or even the Revolt of the Red Bonnets against Louis XIV in 1675. There may be something in these comparisons, but it is all a matter of interpretation.
The Gallic Village is cozily archaic, and the Roman invaders the ultimate in modernity. Julius Caesar is determined to crush the Gallic resistance and incorporate the stubborn villagers into his uniform, supranational empire, where everyone is obliged to speak Latin and follow the Roman lead in architecture and law. Says Astérix, that early ecologist: “The Romans ruin the landscape with their modern constructions.” In Le Combat des Chefs, the Gallic collaborator Aplusbégalix, who is “on the side of those who accept the pax romana and try to adapt themselves to the invaders’ powerful civilization,” apes the modern Roman style by putting Roman columns under his thatched hut.
It is unlikely, however, that Uderzo and Goscinny had any particular axe to grind, even though their childhoods had been affected by the German Occupation and they did have to struggle early in their careers against the American domination of the comic book field. Before assigning any specific analogy to Astérix, it is probably best to say that Astérix and the Gallic Village represent rebellion against all forms of oppression and tyranny, overt or insidious – from armies, big corporations, landlords, bosses, etc. The multitude of translations of the books, including versions in Latin, bears witness to the wide appeal of Astérix’s resistance beyond France.
There is something very moving about the idea of these two men working together in a housing project in the Paris suburb of Bobigny and creating a legend that would become a modern myth and the source of an industry that is now large enough to have created disputes and questions of inheritance.
The exhibition shows us Goscinny’s Royal manual typewriter and the three books that Goscinny and Uderzo used for Astérix’s historical background: the Livre de Poche edition of Caesar’s Chronicles of the Gallic Wars, Jérôme Carcopino’s 1958 La Vie Quotidienne à Rome and the pink pages of the 1959 illustrated Nouveau Petit Larousse for Latin and foreign locutions. Neither had even the rudiments of Latin from school, and there is no evidence of any profound knowledge of druidical lore or the history of the ancient world. Uderzo and Goscinny weren’t scholars; they were magpies, picking up whatever could be useful to them and brilliantly weaving in whatever amused them, however anachronistic. They worked, and Uderzo still does, in exactly the way that William Shakespeare did in writing his plays. Uderzo has said that he regrets lacking the means for formal art studies when he was young. He was obliged to learn by working in the then-disdained medium of comic books, rather than by studying.
The Rome that appears in Astérix owes more to Hollywood epics like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, parodied in the cover art of Astérix et Cléopatre, than to historical and archaeological reconstruction. The exhibition includes such treasures as a piece of paper with Uderzo’s first sketches of Astérix, revised until he found exactly the right shape and form for the character and his moustache. At the beginning, Obélisk wasn’t quite as rotund as he has since become: like all too many of us, he has put on weight with age, probably from eating all those boars.
The best way to really get a grip on the world of Astérix is to have grown up with it. That leaves me out and I regret it. During my late childhood and early adolescence, the best time to soak up this kind of thing, my passions were the Beatles and even more the Rolling Stones et al, rather than comic books. I only really discovered Astérix a few years ago, thanks to someone who has loved the series for as long as she can remember and has read many of the albums five or six times, finding unsuspected treasures with each new reading, just as one can with Proust. I find the plots no more gripping than Wodehouse’s, which is to say not at all, but almost every panel makes me laugh. My friend knows many of the Astérix volumes by heart, and she can name them in order of appearance the way I can name the albums of the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. For her, the exhibition was a trip to heaven. All Astérix fans will feel the same way.
Musée de Cluny-Musée National du Moyen Age: 6, Place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris. Métro: Cluny. Tel.: 01 53 73 78 16. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9:15am-5:45pm. Admission: €8. Free for visitors under 26 and for everyone on the first Sunday of the month. Through January 3. www.musee-moyenage.fr
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