Comic strips can reveal a lot about the cultures from which they come. What makes a people laugh is often a key to what makes them tick.
A savvy show at Montreal's Muse Des Beaux-Arts elucidates the cultural significance of the French-speaking world's most famous comic-strip hero. "Asterix, the Exhibition: An Adventure Through 300 Works of Art" (through Nov. 16) is not only amusing but is also instructive, absorbing, and truly ingenious.
Set in a mythical Gaulish village after the conquest of Gaul by Rome (50 BC), the series by Ren Goscinny and Albert Uderzo concerns the escapades of a feisty, tiny local hero named Asterix and his voluminous companion, Obelix.
Every time these guys have to face the boorish Romans, Asterix drinks a magic potion supplied by the village druid to make him powerful - sort of like Popeye and that spinach thing.
But because Obelix was dropped into a vat of the potion when he was a baby, he is permanently stronger than any army. The pair has no trouble defeating hordes of enemies with nothing worse than a good right fist.
"Asterix" bandes dssinee, or drawn strips, came to public attention in 1959 with the launching of the French comic magazine Pilote (French newspapers don't print strips). The strip has been translated into 77 languages and dialects in 30 albums - of which an astounding 280 million copies have been sold worldwide.
Running gags about Obelix's penchant for wild boar (the way his mother used to make it) and Asterix's wily wits help sustain continuity. The comics work on several levels: Adults like the wordplay and the cultural references as well as the satire (everything from the feminist movement to advertising, politics, and the reputed rudeness of Parisians), while children respond to the mock heroics, slapstick, and the adventures themselves.
The exhibition, which originated in Paris, might merely have been an homage to popular art, but the Montreal museum director, Pierre De Berge, seized the day and made his paean to the diminutive Gaulish hero an opportunity to teach families about culture and art history at the same time.
Mr. De Berge explains that comic strips are a popular art form like the movies: At first considered a vulgar entertainment, they are now appreciated for their form and content as art.
Walking through the exhibit, viewers first notice just how cinematic these drawings are; odd "camera" angles and "helicopter" shots abound. De Berg points out that the drawings are very open, that they fill the frame, and that they are dynamic in all directions. "The image is full of action, and that is very, very contemporary in terms of art," he says.
In the next large room, viewers enter the strip - the walls have been painted in the bright colors of the comics. Here artifacts from 50 BC from the Gallo-Roman period are displayed along with similar artifacts from 19th-century Canada and France. A little cart built to resemble one in use in Julius Caesar's time sits beside a peasant cart from the early 20th century; both are toy-size replicas. But above them is suspended a real wheel of wood and iron from antiquity, along with a 19th-century version. The Gallo-Roman technology had been so far perfected that it did not change for hundreds of years.
In the next room, viewers feel the real punch behind the exhibit: Exquisite works of art brought from France and from the Montreal museum's collection remind us how culture changes.
Gaulish sculpture of gods and goddesses has begun to take on the Roman look. An exquisite image of the Roman god Mercury with his winged helmet has been transformed with a Gaulish beard.
The magnificent works of art from the region and period remind us how one culture changes under the influence of another and how connected neighboring cultures are. In fact, while Gaulish art is less sophisticated than Roman art of the same period, it is still magnificently expressive, as De Berge points out.
Asterix and Obelix do a lot of traveling, and everywhere they go people are just the same - cultural differences notwithstanding. Arrogance and ethnocentrism is gleefully mocked throughout the series. Because the heroes travel to Egypt, Greece, and even North America, objects dating back to the 1st century BC from these countries help children see how the cartoonists drew inspiration from real cultures and ancient peoples.
"So the purpose of the show is really educational," says De Berge. "It is meant to bring kids into contact with forms of art that they would otherwise not see."
The original exhibition starts with a fun premise and a comic character as popular as Mickey Mouse among the Francophones, and then springs real history on viewers and a real feeling for other and ancient cultures. Integrating contemporary cultures with ancient cultures gives viewers a sense of the continuity of history and also of the living quality of art - and all in an irresistibly merry spirit of adventure, just like Asterix and Obelix's own.
* 'Asterix' books are published by Hodder Children's Books.