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Tintin's worldwide capers splash down in Shanghai

August 20, 2021

Here is an ideal escape for parents seeking to relieve the tedium of the long summer vacation for their kids, when out-of-town travel is no longer the best option.

The famed characters of "The Adventures of Tintin" are in Shanghai, making the Power Station of Art their home through the end of October on the fifth floor, with a huge terrace overlooking the Huangpu River.

With incredible access to original sources from the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, the exhibition titled "Tintin and Hergé" celebrates cartoon art, which hadn't been deemed a real art form in Hergé's time. It is now "a full-fledged means of expression, like literature or cinema," that has influenced many during their formative years.

Hergé (1907-1983), the creator of the Tintin series – 24 albums over a span of 54 years – is the centerpiece of the celebration for his devotion to Tintin, storytelling talent and multifaceted life, which was dominated by significant events that defined the era, such as two world wars, space exploration, technological advances and post-war conflicts.

"It took me about an hour to walk around the show with the guide at the museum, and I wished I could have stayed longer," said Zheng Xinyao, a renowned Chinese cartoonist. "If you ask me to compare, I would say Hergé is China's Zhang Leping (1910-1992), a self-taught artist who created the cartoon figure Sanmao – an orphan wandering the streets – for a world of readers."

Born Georges Remi in Brussels in 1907, Hergé studied at St Boniface College, where, in his own words, he was bored to death. In 1921, he joined the boy scouts, where he acquired the totem name Inquisitive Fox. His first drawings appeared in 1924 in Jamais assez, his school scouting magazine, and he signed his drawings with the name Hergé, reversing his initials R.G. as pronounced in French.

Upon completion of his studies, Hergé was employed in the subscription department of the newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. His career took a new turn in 1928 when he was made responsible for designing, supervising and illustrating Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly supplement intended for the newspaper's younger readers.

Tintin the reporter and his dog Snowy made their debut in the supplement on January 10, 1929. In those first stories, Hergé gave his imagination free rein by improvising instead of elaborating the plot. But in 1934, a meeting with Chinese artist Zhang Chongren, who was studying at Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, marked a decisive turning point.

Zhang visited Hergé at his home every Sunday throughout 1934. He taught Hergé Chinese poetry, calligraphy and the basics of Taoist philosophy. They also discussed the pre-World War II political situation in China. Keen to raise the sense of realism in his stories, Hergé immediately set out to incorporate as much of the information he was learning into the creation of "The Blue Lotus" – the fifth album.

In this adventure, Tintin comes to the concession-era Shanghai and successfully smashes a conspiracy related to an international opium smuggling gang with the help of a Chinese orphan Chang, whom he saved from drowning.

To highlight the cross-cultural friendship between the two, the PSA exhibition includes Hergé's detailed storyboards featuring the local populace, Sikh and British police enforcers, and the colorful commercial posters and banners in the streets of Shanghai that Zhang helped to paint – lending extra depth for those who can read Chinese. From page 19 until the end of the album, Tintin dresses in Chinese style, not as a facile gesture of solidarity but rather to blend in with the crowd!

There is also a Chinese dining table with four chairs, showcasing photos of the two artists in Brussels, brushes that Zhang used to teach Hergé to paint and Zhang's diaries. The black dragon on the cover of the album, which Hergé used as a source of inspiration, is enlarged to float over the surrounding backdrop. Standing on the red-carpeted floor, with a tune from Suzhou Pingtan (a traditional form of storytelling and singing) playing in the background, visitors are provided with an immersive experience of time travel back to 1930s Shanghai.

With the success of "The Blue Lotus," Hergé became convinced of the importance of a soundly built storyline and the necessity for thorough research and preparation. He began to take seriously what was, until then, just a simple game.

Hergé worked precisely and methodically. A video clip taken in Studios Hergé, which was founded in 1950, gives viewers a glimpse of what was involved to make the story fit into the standard 62-page book format with the help of his collaborators – who assisted in searching for background information, fashion trends, cutting-edge technologies and coloring.

"You can't even begin to imagine what a long and arduous task it is. It's actually manual labor! Painstaking like a watchmaker's job, really," Hergé said to Numa Sadoul, who interviewed Hergé as a student in 1971 and was later a writer and director.

Despite his busy schedule, Hergé never failed to respond to his young readers, who followed Tintin's adventures over the years and would write long letters expressing their dissatisfaction about mistakes in his works.

"There was a child who pointed out that I drew banana leaves on the coconut trees. He also attached a picture of the banana and coconut trees he'd taken to his letter. There was another who pointed out a mistake regarding the eclipse. In the book "Prisoners of the Sun," the eclipse moves from right to left, whereas in reality it should go from left to right because Peru is in the southern hemisphere," Hergé said in the interview, holding himself accountable for the mistakes. "Those are the boys who read into the real adventures and I can't let them down."

Hergé's research and attention to hyper-realistic detail went into overdrive when it came to the Moon adventure. There was absolutely no space in any drawing for fantasy or over-imagination. It took Bob De Moor, one of his assistants, an entire month to finalize the intricate details and perspective in the majestic drawing of the rocket.

When the moment came for Tintin to be the first human being to see the incredible scenery on the Moon, he descends solemnly down the ladder on the outside of the rocket. He puts his foot on the Moon and takes a few steps. Who reading the story in 1954 would have guessed that Neil Armstrong, the first person on the Moon 15 years later, stated: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The exhibition presents Hergé's two letters to space experts Bernard Heuvelmans and Alexandre Ananoff on lunar rockets and the origins of the spacewalk project in 1949 and 1950, respectively.

"You just have to read Hergé's letters," said Wang Yue, Moulinsart representative in China. "His use of words and styles of writing are so humble that anyone who receives a request like that won't have the heart to turn him down."

Wang, 53, recalled his childhood excitement when he was given his first Tintin album by his French teacher to improve his French outside of class.

"It captivated and delighted me as a child. And who could know that I one day would meet Zhang's daughter at the Tintin Shop in Brussels, and eventually open the Tintin Shop in Shanghai," said Wang. "Tintin's courage and goodness still affect and encourage me."

Tintin is, of course, much more than the intrepid hero whose cause is just and heart is pure; he is the centerpiece of a complex universe where we are placed face to face with our own reality. Characters, such as captain Haddock, professor Calculus, signora Bianca Castafiore and the twin detectives Thompson and Thomson lend color, depth and perspective to his world.

As Tintin's global adventures continued, he grew to become one of the best known and most admired cartoon characters of the 20th century, attracting hundreds of millions of fans from across the world. To date, the collection has been translated into more than 70 languages and published in over 100 countries, with more than 230 million copies sold.

Ren Jian came to the exhibition with his wife. He said he started reading the Tintin series with his son in the 2000s. The father and son were enamored of the various means of transportation Tintin used while traveling around the world – ships, airplanes, cars, buses, trucks, trains, canoes, rafts, horses and even llamas.

"The comic books are full of beautiful renditions of various means of transport. The vehicles kept up with development in the field of transportation. Sea travel gave way to air travel, from fighter craft Bf109 to private jets like Carreidas 160. A study of these vehicles is equivalent to studying the history of transport," said Ren, who is currently revising a translation of the book "Herge, Tintin and the aircraft."

Zhou Qi came to the exhibition with her friends. She said they came to the show to look for fashion and design ideas, especially for the unfinished album "Tintin and Alph-Art."

The 24th album in the Tintin series is an unfinished symphony. Three pencilled pages, 42 additional pages roughly sketched, a few pages of storyline and other scribbles and notes make up Hergé's ultimate story.

The plot unfolds against the backdrop of the modern art world, which Hergé knew well in his later years. In fact, he developed a passion for modern art beginning in the 1960s, and even tried his hand at it on weekends. But he decided not to take his hobby further, because "I have but one life…and I must choose: painting or Tintin, it can't be both!"

The exhibition displays a number of modern paintings by Hergé for the first time to the public, along with his collections by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Pierre Raynaud and others. The sketch of the Fourcart Gallery where the adventure is supposed to begin is reproduced on site, modelled after the Carrefour Gallery on Avenue Louise in Brussels that Hergé visited regularly.

It's worth noting that in his choice of name, Hergé was up to his old tricks again: the name of the gallery "Fourcart" is "Carrefour" read in reverse, just like he chose Hergé for Georges Remi 59 years earlier, when he was 17.

Exhibition info

Dates: Through October 31 (closed on Mondays), 11am-7pm; Daily guided tour 11:30am-12:30pm, 2pm-3pm, 3:30pm-4:30pm

Tickets: 60 yuan (half price for teachers and students)

Venue: 5/F, Power Station of Art

Address: 678 Miaojiang Rd