Ask someone to name 10 famous Belgians, and no one can. The tiny country appears bereft of fame. But on closer inspection, Belgium can make a few claims - without counting waffles and Stella Artois. There's King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo as his own private estate and became a symbol of colonial excess. Or Jacques Brel, who dealt with his insecurities much more elegantly by becoming one of the most wildly expressive singers in history. And there's mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot - true, he's fictional, but no less iconic.
But the country's two greatest cultural figures are both artists, and as of this year those two bowler-hat-loving Belgians - Tintin comic book creator Hergé and the subversive surrealist René Magritte - are being celebrated with their own museums. Not that they would have celebrated together, had they had the chance. The two couldn't have been more different.
In the land of Tintin
The 24 Tintin books by Georges Remi (1907-1983), who reversed his initials to come up with the pseudonym Hergé, have sold more than 230 million copies in 80 languages. In comics-obsessed Belgium, Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy are icons to be found everywhere - from themed restaurants to countless murals to tours of the local streetscapes and the museum mummies that provided Hergé with direct inspiration.
Remi developed his simple but highly influential technique, ligne claire (clear line), to create the most detail-rich of comic panels, and before long his fame and destiny were bound with a boy journalist named Tintin, his blond coif and Boy Scout attitude.
That Boy Scout attitude, though, doesn't mean the stories are without substance. Tom McCarthy, author of Tintin and the Secret of Literature , sees a lot happening within the pages of Tintin books. "The series explored a political world in a state of continual upheaval: conflict over Middle Eastern oil; profiteering multinationals; arms traders with one foot in the president's office; an ongoing space race; perpetually troubled Balkans. … What's not relevant?"
Now the legacy is housed in Musée Hergé, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc. With its wonky angles and familiarly bold colour palette, it feels like a direct translation of Tintin comics into three-dimensional space, while managing to tell a clear and chronological story of Hergé's life through drawings, film fragments, toys and models.
While Hergé created a graphic history of his times, he himself had a bumpy ride: multiple arrests for working under German occupation, the shame of abandoning his Catholic marriage and aftermaths of several nervous breakdowns. After being stung by accusations of racism and propagandist tendencies in such early works as Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in the Land of the Soviets , he befriended a Chinese student, Tchang Tchong-jen, to avoid the same mistakes in The Blue Lotus (1936). The museum exhibition captures Hergé's thoughts at the time: "It made me conscious of the need to get the true facts on a country and to lay out a coherent story." And while not everything is up to contemporary politically correct standards, he was always open about his true motives: "I was just happy drawing little guys."
The other "little guys" that made up Tintin's recurring cast of charming misfits - iconic Belgians the lot of them - included the bumbling and bowler-hatted (!) detectives Thompson and Thomson, the eccentric Professor Calculus and the glass-shattering opera star Bianca Castafiore. But the ultimate foil for the overly earnest hero Tintin proved to be the grumpy alcoholic sea captain Captain Haddock, who could curse with the best surrealists ("Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!" "Dunder-Headed Ethelreds!", "Ectoplasm!", "Vegetarian!").
Tintin's continued resonance is perhaps what inspired Steven Spielberg to make The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn , starring Daniel Craig and set for release in 2011. Obviously he's banking on a global audience (the film is being released in Europe first), yet he may remember what American comic artist Chris Ware famously said: "Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America."
In Magritte's dream world When it comes to museum as biography - and both museums follow this line - one quickly gets the impression that René Magritte (1898-1967) had a lot more fun than Hergé. After all, there was always some surrealist prank to be played.