Tintin's big art adventure

An exhibition in Paris puts the creator of the blank-faced boy reporter and his clever dog alongside the 20th century's great artists. John Lichfield gets drawn in

Blistering barnacles! Ten thousand thundering typhoons! Two decades after his creator's death, a new and glorious episode has been added to the adventures of Tintin. The egg-headed boy journalist, his astute dog, Snowy, and his hirsute and drunken pal, Captain Haddock, have climbed out of their comic books and invaded one of the temples of modern art.

A wonderful exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris acclaims Georges Remi, alias Hergé, Tintin's creator, as one of the greatest, and most influential, artists of the 20th century. Hergé, an unassuming man, who dabbled in painting and collected modern art towards the end of his life, would have been delighted. And amused.

The Pompidou exhibition is the first in a series of celebrations of the centenary of Hergé's birth next year. There will also be a large exhibition in Brussels, his birthplace, and a Tintin play in London.

Hergé has long been celebrated as the father of the bande dessinée, or comic book, claimed by the French as the "ninth art". He was recognised by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as an important influence on the Pop-Art movement in the United States in the 1960s (even though Tintin has never succeeded in America).

The Pompidou Centre, one of the world's most prestigious modern art institutes, makes an even more ambitious claim. The exhibition suggests Hergé - because of the inventiveness and skill of his drawing and his unusual use of colour - was a great artist in his own right. Co-curator Laurent Le Bon says: "The importance of this show is that we are showing the work of Hergé in the same building as the work of Matisse and Picasso."

Tintin first appeared in the "Petit Vingtième", the children's section of a Brussels newspaper, in 1929. The two dozen Tintin albums have since sold more than 200 million copies in 60 languages. Tintin derivatives - crockery, beach towels, key-chains, watches, model cars and rockets - are hugely successful (and often hugely expensive). Tintin's strangely blank face and his famous quiff of blonde hair have appeared on a Belgian stamp and a euro coin.

Hergé (1907-83) has also been acclaimed as a great novelist (in graphic form), who stands comparison with Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. He has been named by Steven Spielberg as one of the inspirations of his Indiana Jones adventure movies. His love of language and delight in the bizarre - the creative oaths of Captain Haddock; the antics of the Thompson/Thomson twin detectives - have been compared to Ionecso's theatre of the absurd and work of another Belgian master, the surrealist René Magritte.

Was Hergé also, accidentally, a great artist? He was a wonderful storyteller in pictures. Is it reasonable to separate the pictures from the stories and call them art? The minimalist French artist Jean-Pierre Raynaud, who was a friend of Hergé, believes that such a claim can be justified. "He has a precision of the kind I love in Mondrian. He has the artistic economy that you find in Matisse's drawings. He perfectly crystallises what he wants to say and, as a result, his work never ages."

Hergé invented, or reinvented, a style of drawing called ligne claire or clear line. Unlike many other illustrators, he drew in lines of almost unchanging weight and thickness. He imposed the same stylised degree of detail, or lack of detail, on every character, in every box, in every panel. Nothing was shaded. The result is uncluttered, almost child-like, but capable of conveying great movement and great subtlety.

The second Hergé innovation was the use of plain, unshaded colour. Hergé once said: "The notion of shadows, of light and shade, is a convention...I prefer to stand up for single colours, which have the advantage of being simpler and more comprehensible. For a child, Tintin's jumper is blue, completely blue. Why should it be light blue on one side, and dark blue on the other? It's the same jumper."

The Hergé show is an attempt to attract a wider, younger and non-museum-going audience. Unusually for Paris, it is free. It is also part of a campaign by "serious" art institutes to make new connections between "great" art and popular culture. On the other side of Paris, the Grand Palais is still presenting a fascinating exhibition tracing the European artistic influences on Walt Disney.

Did Hergé consider himself an artist or just a popular entertainer? His attitude to his own work shifted as he grew older and more successful, and began to collect contemporary art and even to paint himself. He produced 37 canvases, said to have been heavily influenced by Joan Miro and Roy Lichtenstein. At one stage, he showed them to a Belgian museum curator - and great admirer of Tintin - who declared them to be rubbish. Hergé seems to have agreed. At any rate, they have never been exhibited publicly.

Pierre Sterckx, a Belgian art critic and friend and biographer of Hergé, says: "I have seen them and they are not completely without interest. They are influenced by Miro, [Serge] Poliakoff, Klee, Van Lint. They are faultless canvases." By decision of the Hergé foundation, the public will not see them. Since Herge himself concluded that they should not be exhibited, this seems fair enough.

In 1979, four years before he died, Hergé met Andy Warhol and commissioned him to paint his portrait. Hergé asked Warhol, modestly, whether the father of Tintin should also consider himself a "Pop Artist". Warhol, although a great fan of Hergé, simply stared back at him and did not reply.

Even a revolutionary such as Warhol believed, it seems, in distinctions between "high art" and "low art". He was prepared to steal ideas from popular culture but not to accept that the popular could itself be, unknowingly, great art. Art purists would agree with Warhol. Serious art, they would say, requires some sort of serious artistic intention.

All the same, the Pompidou exhibition is a delight. You don't have to accept that Hergé was another Matisse - or even be a fan of the Tintin books - to enjoy it enormously.

'Hergé' is at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 19 February; www.centrepompidou.fr

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