Two legal events were covered in the Belgian press last week that proved that this Hergé (and Tintin, obviously) centennial may get interesting after all. Indeed, there seems to be more to Tintin these days than a (bad) exhibition at Angouleme, a few (less bad, but not exactly good either) commemorative issues by the Belgian Mint and the Belgian Post and some (very meagre) tidbits about the Tintin movies that are supposed to be somewhere between pre-pre-production and pre-production hell. And, as opposed to a black man wanting to ban Tintin in Congo, these two events may have actual social importance.
The first one was the publication of a ruling in the Magazine for Belgian Commercial Law in the case of Ole Ahlberg. This Danish artist had had an exhibition in the Brussels gallery Racines & L’Oeil in 1998, with paintings liberally citing Hergé’s and fellow Belgian artist René Magritte’s work. In the paintings Tintin is shown picking up prostitutes and otherwise engaging in rather lewd activities, while the Thompson twins are substituting the more anonymous men-in-bowler-hats that Magritte had descending from the sky. Moulinsart, the owners of the rights to Hergé’s work, were not amused and had two paintings removed from the exhibition.
(Ole Ahlberg using the Thompson Twins to pastiche famed Surrealist painter Magritte)
Three years later, at a second show, the Moulinsart lawyers demanded the destruction of the works on display and a payment of EUR 10,000, all in front of the wife of the Danish prime minister who was in Brussels to open the exhibition. Ahlberg didn’t comply with these demands, with a lawsuit as a result. Now the Brussels appeals court has ruled in favour of Ahlberg, citing the parody exception as mentioned in the Belgian copyright law. This states that an artist may at least partly appropriate one of his colleague’s idiom for the purpose of parody, provided he does so in a critical, humorous and respectful manner.
The second one is at least as illustrative of the way in which Moulinsart, and more particularly Nick Rodwell, is “protecting” Hergé’s legacy. Last week the court of first instance prohibited the broadcast of a documentary by the RTBF, which is supposed to prove, by means of candid camera recordings, the existence of a “black list” of Tintin experts that Rodwell (husband of Hergé’s widow Fanny Vlaeminck and manager of all rights to Hergé’s artistic legacy) wants to silence for good. This list specifies that everybody who wants to do a documentary on Tintin or Hergé can only do so by interviewing “Tintinologues” that are already approved of by Moulinsart.
(Tintin is clearly alarmed this young lady – who appears to be searching for her fallen contact lenses – may lean back and jab herself on the rocket by accident in this Ole Alhlberg painting)
Eminent writers and Hergé biographers Pierre Sterckx and Benoit Peeters are not among those chosen few, as journalist Hugues Dayez reported in De Morgen last weekend. Neither is Tintin fan (and Hergé intimate) Stéphane Steeman, who sold his enormous Tintin collection to Moulinsart only to be forced by Rodwell to cease publication of his (very benign) magazine “Les Amis d’Hergé”. Dayez himself wanted to write about all this in his book “Tintin et les Héritiers” and was asked to deposit his manuscript with Moulinsart’s lawyers for pre-approval. He refused.
These two incidents are only the latest in a long line of initiatives and wranglings by Moulinsart to maintain complete control of all aspects of the Hergé and Tintin legacy. In terms of copyrights, Moulinsart naturally has the law and God on its side, but if only “validated” voices are ever allowed to talk about Tintin, it ceases being a living cultural artefact. And then all that remains is the endless slew of figurines, DVDs and clothes that seem to be Rodwell’s main objective.
It is sad to see how this contrasts with Hergé’s own relationship with the world at large (Hergé, whom Rodwell didn’t actually know personally, mind you). He too met with harsh criticism and dissenting voices during his life (most notably with regards to Tintin Aux Pays Des Soviets and Tintin Et Les Picaros, which prompted left wing critics to accuse him of slavishly adopting right-wing views on things), but he never went out of the way to avoid any confrontation. He welcomed his critics, listened to them and tried to respond or, in some cases, even admit they were right. Even when pirate editions of Tintin parodies started to appear in the late seventies (most notably “Tintin en Suisse”), he took action against them first and foremost because he thought their production value was too low for a Tintin book.