René Goscinny: Au-delà du rire

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme has currently got an exhibition on about Rene Gosziny, the brains behind several popular French comics including Asterix.

Rene Gosziny

Rene Gosziny came from a family of Eastern European Jews. His father’s family came from Warsaw and his mother’s family came from the part of Poland which is now part of the Ukraine. Both of his parents had moved to France to flee in the 1900s to flee the indiment programs. They met in Paris and married.

Rene was born in Paris in 1926. His family moved to Buenos Aeries when he was 2. This is where Rene spent most of his childhood. He was educated in a French school. He was steeped in French history of school. It is perhaps to this experience of French culture, at once both at a remove and deeply felt, that we owe the lightly worn historical scholarship of Asterix.

During this period the shadow of Nazism fell on Rene’s life. Even as he was A haunting exhibition shows his childish scribbles. An acoomplished illustrator, characrutres of leading nazies are on the same page as pictures of mickey mouse.

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School boy illustrations

In 1943, after his father’s death, Rene and his mother moved to New York. This was an influential period for the young artist as he met and worked with other young and talented artists including several who later worked for MAD magazine.

He returned to France in 1951. France during this period was experiencing a period of optimism, economic growth and social liberalisation. Sometimes called Les Trente Glorieuses this period was the complete opposite to what Britain is experiencing now.

Best known in Britain for Asterix he was also the brains behind Lucky Luke and charming Le Petite Nicholas series. In 1959 he founded Pilote magazine. It was in this magazine in which Asterix first appeared.

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Self portrait

 

Asterix

The show is very much about Rene, the man, and his connections to the Jewish community in France. It is a very humane show, but the real stars of the show are the comics themselves. In Albert Uderzo, Rene found a highly capable artist capable of bringing his intelligent and anarchic comedy to life.

It is perhaps because of his intinerent childhood that the lightly ironic tone of Asterix is owed. Rene’s global outlook meant he could unpick the differences of nations and mock the national sterotypes, even as he undermined them. I never found out what a Roman orgy was for many years, but I know it was hard to organise one in Switzerland because the Swiss would always insist on cleaning up during them.

A fascinating insight the exhibition afforded was that it showed the images of the school books Rene would have read in Buenos Aeries. A image of Caesar looks strikingly similar to an image of Caesar found in Asterix.

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Image from French children’s book about Julius Caesar

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Caesar as portrayed in Asterix

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Caesar in the Senate House in Rome.

Asterix and Egypt

Reading the books from Meriden Public Library many years later the image of Caesar found in Asterix, seared itself in my mind. I never understood why people went on about Anthony and Cleopatra when it was Caesar and Cleopatra that was the great jealous love.

In Asterix and Cleopatra the two lovers bet on whether the Egyptians can finish a palace within three months. This was presumably to replace the palace destroyed in street fighting between factions of Cleopatra VII and her brothers and their Roman supporters.

The book ends with Cleopatra giving Getafix some books from the Library of Alexandria, presumbaly before the fire of storage warehouses along the harbour of Alexandria. Obelix, the aritsanal menhir craftman begins fashion egyptinaising obelisks inspired by his experience of Egypt and perhaps responding to the market created by the new Roman inhabitants.

 

Summary

If you can make the show do. It’s on until 4th March. If you can’t then buy yourself some Asterix comics.

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Paris in the time of Asterix. Always worth a visit.

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