Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Francophilia: Asterix in Paris

Two of my favourite French cultural icons are being brought together with an exhibition of Asterix and friends at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The show, appropriately, is being housed in the museum’s frigidarium, a part of the building that has survived since the Romans ran Gaul.

In the typically irreverent style of Asterix’s creators Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, the show features some great cartoon parodies of classic artworks.

I love this version of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV -

And here is their take on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a fish (what, no roast boar?!) standing in for the human corpse -

It’s interesting to hear how Uderzo and Goscinny incorporated historical research into their artistic process. The exhibition’s curator Emmanuelle Héran says that ‘while neither spoke Latin (they relied on dictionaries for quotations) and weren’t experts on Roman or Gaulish history, they did plenty of school-book research. The exhibition shows them devouring Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars and you can see notes Goscinny scribbled in biro on pieces of exercise book paper as preparation for Asterix and the Olympic Games. “No pine trees, cypresses” […] “From 776 B.C. the Games are held for 5 days between the end of June and the first days of September”’.

Apparently, historians were sometimes distressed by their gleeful anachronisms. (I can just imagine the kind of wizened carrot-up-his-bum scholar that would take issue with Asterix. It’s a cartoon, people.) Luckily, Goscinny and Uderzo were more interested in having a laugh than providing accurate depictions of the past. Otherwise, we might never have witnessed the joyous concurrence of a 16th century square-rigged pirate ship and a Viking longboat.

Strangely, while I enjoy reading the Asterix cartoons in French, I think they’re actually funnier in English. I don’t know, maybe the English language is more suited to puns and word play. For instance, the drug reference makes Getafix a much wittier name for a druidic pharmacologist than the original Panoramix. And isn't Cacophonix a more suitable moniker for the no-talent Bard than the French Assurancetourix (which sounds like rental car insurance)?

In French class last term, my classmates and I could get away with drinking wine and waffling about movies, rugby and what we did over the weekend. This term, we have to read French novels and come to class prepared with lots of intelligent things to say about them whilst exhibiting the ability to ‘think in French’. At the moment, I’m leavening my reading of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with liberal doses of Asterix en Hispanie (but don’t tell my teacher).

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