Making An Exhibition Of Themselves
How do you exhibit comics? Do they even belong in museums and galleries? You could argue that unlike the unique masterpieces of fine art, comic artwork is commercial illustration, created to be reproduced, not put under glass and framed onto walls. Historically, creators as well as publishers were often cavalier about their originals, giving them to readers as prizes, propping up tables or mopping up spills with them, chucking them away.
Fortunately those attitudes have changed since comics and the art made for them became collectables and investments. Now they inhabit the world of Official Price Guides, ‘grading experts’, and auctions at Sotheby’s, New York or Drouot, Paris, where Spielberg and Lucas outbid everyone. They have also arrived in galleries and museums, and the challenge now is how to present meaningful exhibitions about the comics medium to an interested but non-specialist public, and not just to eager amateurs and envious collectors. As former Project Director for nine years for The Cartoon Art Trust, trying to do just that in Britain, I have taken a special interest in how this is being done around the world.
This January, for the nineteenth time, I joined around 200,000 people of all ages who flocked to France’s annual Angoulême International Comics Festival, to my mind the best and probably the biggest in the world outside of Japan. In fact, since 1990, the city of Angoulême thrives all year round as a BD ‘Mecca’ because of its permanent £8 million Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image or CNBDI. Opened by culture minister Jack Lang as President Mitterand’s most ambitious project outside of Paris, the dramatic, glass-fronted building makes real the intention that ‘the 9th Art’, as comics are termed, should be part of the nation’s culture.
In 2005, the CNBDI unveiled a bold, multi-faceted exhibit, The Imaginary Museums of Comics. The existing museum had adopted an art-historical approach in a reverential, low-lit art gallery. When the museum and the growing collection demanded more space and fresh ideas, in order to relocate by 2007 to larger adjoining premises, its then director Thierry Groensteen began imagining not one, but six concepts. His goal was to re-imagine how the richness and diversity of comics might be interpreted within a variety of museum types.
So Groensteen envisioned a Natural History Museum overrun with the real and fantastic animals of comics. Here the emphasis is on the unexpected use of reproductions: glass cases full of fragile speech balloons and sound effects pinned like butterflies, an evolutionary chart of the cartoon pooch from Snowy up to Goofy, and scientific ‘studies’ into the creatures that exist only in comics. I enjoyed another witty approach in the Ethnology Museum, where large glass-fronted tableaux contain archetypal comics heroes and heroines, analysed in their individual dress and habitats, from Batman’s batcave to the teenage boudoir of Claire Bretécher‘s Agrippine.
As enjoyable as these amusements are, they do not address the confusions many people have when they are first presented with original comic art: why is it bigger than it appears in the comics they know, why is it messy, not in colour, missing the words? To my mind, it’s vital to demystify how it is created and the Science Museum does this engagingly. Here you can press buttons on fanciful machinery to watch videos of every step in a comic page’s creation, from first sketch to printed article. For those who imagined comics must pour out of a computer automatically, it must come as a revelation to see how much thought and artistry goes into them. This can only heighten their understanding of what they can see in the other three Museums: more than a century of the medium’s evolution in the History Museum; gilt-framed grand ‘old masters’ of bande dessinée in the plushly carpeted Fine Art Museum; and today’s comics avant garde in the mock-austere Museum of Contemporary Art.
I was relieved that any loftiness was cleverly undercut. You enter each Museum through appropriate trompe l’oeil facades, which resemble huge cardboard architecture kits complete with perforations and folding tabs, and which subtly re-associate comics with children’s past-times, our first experience of their magic. Design team Lucie Lom’s meticulous interiors invite anyone to play and explore, and to surprise yourself that comics can contain the whole of life.
While Angoulême’s museums survey the entire medium, the Flanders city of Leuven, near Brussels and comic-culture collective Beeld Beeld have invited one artist, Britain’s award-winning Dave McKean, to exhibit his prolific output, not only in comics, but in paint, photography, print and film. Refusing to be put in a tank, McKean swims freely between his multiple media, and fittingly his retrospective Narcolepsy presents them all as related facets, informing and deforming each other. The visitor physically experiences this freedom, by moving through a series of installations of his works, using lighting, sound, projections. If McKean wants visitors to feel as though they are stepping inside his waking dreams, then he succeeds. You might expect, however, that comics, as one element in a mixed, immersive show of this sort, would lose out, but I feel they easily hold their own, certainly when put alongside his paintings, as some of his best and most personal pieces. McKean has crafted these multi-panelled pages, like all comic art, as stories to be printed and read, but they are equally open to being appreciated in their own right in the original. It seems comic art need not feel uncomfortable in a gallery setting after all.
You can still visit the The Imaginary Museums of Comics exhibition at the CNBDI in Angoulême, France until June 2010. However, the Dave McKean retrospective in Leuven, Brussels has now closed.Posted: August 20, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in Blueprint Magazine, the international authority on contemporary architecture, design, and culture.