On Art

The mystery of the folded dragon

Michael Prodger recounts the tale of Hergé’s drawing for the cover of the Tintin instalment: The Blue Lotus

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In 1929, Georges Remi — better known as Hergé — an editor at the Belgian Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, produced his first The Adventures of Tintin comic strip for the paper’s children’s edition, Le Petit Vingtième. The series was eventually to number 24 books, and since then some way north of 230 million copies have been sold as well as mountains of Tintin merchandise.

The levels of devotion and deep pockets of the world’s Tintinophiles have been demonstrated many times: in 2014, when a page of drawings used on the series’ dustjackets fetched €2.5 million; in 2016 when a drawing for Explorers on the Moon sold for €1.55 million; and this past January when the Parisian auction house Artcurial sold a rejected 1936 Hergé drawing for the cover of The Blue Lotus (1936) for €2.6 million. The price paid by an anonymous private collector was a new record for an illustration made for a comic book.

The image, showing Tintin and his dog Snowy startled by a vivid dragon painted on a wall and hiding in a porcelain jar, was rejected by the publishers Casterman as being too expensive to reproduce using the four-colour printing method. Hergé went off to design a simpler image showing a black dragon against a plain red background and apparently gave the original drawing to Louis Casterman’s seven-year-old son Jean-Paul, who folded up the work and kept it in a drawer. The resulting creases appear not to have deterred the buyer or the two avid underbidders.

The reasons the drawing was so sought after are varied. It is a stunning piece of graphic design, even if it isn’t an entirely original one. It was based on the cover illustration of A-Z magazine for September 1932, showing Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American Hollywood star, being menaced by a similar dragon. The
drawing’s rarity was a help too: as the Hergé specialist Michael Farr put it, “It’s a question of supply and demand and there is practically no supply.”

If Hergé was determined to highlight Japanese aggression he was scrupulously careful not to offend Chinese sensibilities

The Blue Lotus, the fifth book in the Tintin series, also marks a turning point in the character’s trajectory. It picks up the plot of the previous book, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and plunges into a story of drug smuggling (The Blue Lotus is a Shanghai opium den), poison, kidnappings, corruption and espionage as the Japanese seek to invent a reason to invade China.

This plot strand alludes to Japan’s false-flag invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and shows Hergé’s clear-eyed assessment of Japanese militarism: a year after publication Japanese troops would invade mainland China.

For a children’s book, its effect was extraordinary. The anti-Japanese message delighted Chiang Kai-shek, who invited Hergé to visit China in person, while it outraged the Japanese, who made an official diplomatic complaint in Brussels which they threatened to escalate at the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.

If Hergé was determined to highlight Japanese aggression he was scrupulously careful not to offend Chinese sensibilities. His books have regularly been accused of casual racism — autre temps, autres moeurs notwithstanding — but he went to great lengths with The Blue Lotus to depict the country without prejudice. “It was from that time,” he said, “that I undertook research and really interested myself in the people and countries to which I sent Tintin, out of a sense of responsibility to my readers.” In two earlier books, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in America, he had shown his boy hero tangling with pigtailed gangsters but this time he was determined to avoid cliché.

The book was his first to be based on documentary photographs showing the real China, from rickshaw pullers to shackled prisoners, branded cigarettes and architectural detailing. Its attitude, however, was shaped by Father Gosset, chaplain to Chinese seminarists studying at the University of Louvain. Gosset both warned Hergé against stereotyping and introduced him to a sculpture student at the Brussels Academy, Chang Chong-chen.

The two men got on exceptionally well, and Chang’s descriptions of his home country and its culture (he gave Hergé a set of Chinese brushes and taught him traditional calligraphy) were revelatory. “For me up to then,” wrote Hergé, “China was peopled by a vague, slit-eyed people who were very cruel, and would eat swallows’ nests, wear pig-tails and throw children into rivers.” The original cover design does not escape cliché, but it treats it with panache.

The sale of the drawing was itself not without controversy

The sale of the drawing was itself not without controversy. The idea that it was a gift to the publisher’s son was treated by some with scepticism, not least by Nick Rodwell, the husband of Hergé’s widow Fanny and head of the Hergé Foundation. “I do not believe in this story of a gift,” he told Le Monde bluntly before the sale.

Indeed, in a letter to his editor at the time, Hergé said: “I’m sending you the draft of the cover … can you send it back after confirmation or with comments?” It seems the drawing never made it back. A legal judgment of 2015 ruled that the copyright to Tintin had belonged to the Casterman family since 1942, but if in 1936 Hergé had wanted the drawing returned then ownership was not clear-cut.

“I’m not saying it was stolen by Casterman,” said Rodwell. “It was just not returned by Casterman.” None of this provenance-wrangling hampered the sale. A wonderful illustration for a book about mysteries simply carries a mystery of its own.

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