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So British, So French: Posy Simmonds & Catherine Meurisse Do Pulp

The Pulp Festival "forces comics out of their frames," in order to mix them up with all the other arts. As well as hosting guest stars and staging exhibitions, Pulp combines BD with music, dance, film and a range of offbeat happenings. But one of the best things about it is that it happens at La Ferme du Buisson.

Just beyond the edge of Paris, this is a former farm that dates from 1879. Developed by the Menier family of chocolate barons, it once fed hundreds of their workers and supplied the beetroot used in their chocolates. Now its one-time stables and dairies have become studios, theaters, cinemas and a médiathèque.

Ferme Director Vincent Eches conceived Pulp in 2013. This, its sixth edition, proved every bit as ingenious as bigger-name fêtes. One reason was its stars: the artists Posy Simmonds and Catherine Meurisse. Simmonds is the subject of a major retrospective, called "J'ai deux amours" ("I Have Two Loves") and Meurisse created a Festival installation, D'après nature ("From Nature"), based on her book Les Grandes Espaces ("The Wide Open Spaces"). Pulp also celebrated the French debut of Cassandra Darke – Posy Simmonds' first graphic novel in eleven years – and the monograph So British! The Art of Posy Simmonds by critic Paul Gravett.

Catherine Meurisse (far left) and Posy Simmonds (far right) with Catherine Robin of Elle; photo courtesy Pulp and © Camille Scandrol, all rights reserved

Posy Simmonds and Catherine Meurisse are both pioneers, but each hails from a different generation and geography. Born in 1945, Rosemary Elizabeth Simmonds is a national British treasure – a bit like Banksy, she is inimitable and unpredictable. She came to prominence during the 1970s, a moment which gave female cartoonists few paths to print. In Britain, they were limited to 'underground' magazines and a handful of struggling feminist journals. Yet Simmonds was hired by a national daily, the Guardian.

There she spent over ten years drawing a weekly strip, a sharp-eyed parody of the paper's own (middle-class) public. In 1981, she was voted Britain's Cartoonist of the Year. In 1999 – again for the Guardian – Simmonds broke ground with a daily serial. She called this The Late Gemma Bovery, and gave it a subtitle: "A tale of adultery and soft furnishings." Using Flaubert's Madame Bovary as a springboard, Posy generated an off-the-wall morality play. Its characters were English expatriates in France and the faithless "Gemma" a Princess Di look-alike.

Gemma was published in 1999 as a graphic novel and was followed in 2005 by a second Guardian serial. This was Tamara Drewe, based on Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). Tamara too appeared as a book then, in 2010, became a hit movie. A cinematic version of Gemma Bovery followed four years later.

Critics wasted no time hailing in Simmonds' skills. When Gemma Bovery made it to America in 2005, the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani called it proof of "what an elastic form the graphic novel can be." But Gemma's French feats – the work appeared in France only a year after its debut – were even more impressive. It came to Paris in the suitcase of Héloïse d'Ormesson, the publisher-daughter of a French literary legend. The albums rapid, huge success led d'Ormesson's employer, Editions Denoël, to create a comics imprint of their own. Denoël Graphics has published Simmonds ever since.

Original art for Simmonds' Guardian strip © The Guardian and Posy Simmonds, 1977

Simmonds herself is a passionate Francophile. Raised in an English village and schooled nearby, Paris was the first big city she ever called home. Propelled by a French teacher who "smelled deliciously of Dior," Simmonds arrived in the City of Light – alone – at the age of 17. In Paris, Posy discovered jazz, museums, café society, shoe shops and the delights of walking home at dawn. "I arrived a proper English girl dressed in Jaeger. But I went back looking like Juliette Greco, in black from top-to-toe. Black leather skirt, black polo neck, black eyeliner."

Her long love affair with the city is fully reciprocal; Simmonds is seen as one of the Ninth Art's "grandes signatures." At the 2017 Angoulême Festival, she was the President of its prestigious Jury. That year's Festival was marked by a concert dessiné – live drawing to live music – featuring Posy's long-time fan Penelope Bagieu. Even France Culture hailed her, by making Gemma Bovery into a ten-part radio series. Last week, when Simmonds and Gravett launched their books in Paris, the event was crammed with admirers. Within days, Cassandra Darke was visible all over town and Gravett's monograph had topped a niche list: best-selling BD critiques.

Back at home in England, Cassandra Darke did just as well. Published late last November, it became a popular Christmas present. Perhaps because, once again, it is a nod to classic lit – or, more specifically, to a classic character. This is Charles Dickens' Scrooge, who helped to shape "Cassandra." Like Ebenezer, Darke is rich, stingy and misanthropic. But she is more a modern than a Victorian Londoner: shamelessly obese, bruisingly rude, and unbothered about her dress. Her fortune, readers discover, comes from art-market fraud. Yet when she is outed in court, Darke remains unrepentant.

It's a modern whodunit worthy of a podcast, with a plot that hinges on texts and a price sticker. Yet some of its scenes are rendered with a surprising beauty. Surprising because the album's real subject – how urbanites choose to live – is shown as shallow, atomized, and lonely. In a career that has now spanned five decades, Posy Simmonds never penned anything more stinging.

At 38, Catherine Meurisse is several decades Posy's junior. But her path to comics was equally atypical. Meurisse was also raised in the country (in her case, western France). At 17, she won Angoulême's school-talent contest. As a graduate, her initial degree was literature but she followed it with art studies in Paris – first at L'École Estienne (L’École supérieure des arts et industries graphiques) and then at ÉnsAD (the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs). Even as a student, however, Catherine's cartoons were appearing in Charlie Hebdo. Barely hours after she left ÉnsAD, the all-male weekly invited her onboard. A popular specialist of socio-sexual observations, Catherine created her own strip: Scènes de la vie Hormonale ("A Life with Hormones"). She remained part of the staff for ten years.

Like Simmonds, Meurisse does illustration as well as comics and both draw children's books. But it was in bandes dessinées where, from the start, Catherine displayed a notable originality. Her graphic novels Mes hommes de lettres ("My Men of Literature", in 2008) and Pont des arts ("Bridge of the Arts", in 2012) are unique turns on her passion for artists and writers. For Meurisse, these figures – who she pictures more like rock stars – are not "influences" but fellow travelers.

Entrance to Catherine Meurisse's installation, D'après nature (From Nature) @ the Pulp Festival 2019 © Romain Darnaud, all rights reserved

Meurisse has appeared in many collections from Charlie Hebdo's house imprint Les Echappés. In 2014, they also published Savoir-Vivre ou Mourir ("Good Manners or Die!"), in which she goes underground at a snooty charm school. It was that same year when, following in the Louvre's footsteps, Paris' Musée d'Orsay launched a line of comics. They asked Meurisse to create its debut album and it became her first giant hit, Moderne Olympia. Moderne Olympia is a BD West Side Story which pits characters from the museum's "Classic" art against a gang of its "Romantics." "I chose Manet's Olympia," she told fans at Pulp, "because I wanted the question of women centre-stage. Because, if you walk around the Musée d'Orsay, you see few women painters but plenty of female nudes. It's only Olympia who dares to look you in the eye."

Moderne Olympia was hotly tipped for Angoulême's 2015 Grand Prize. But its author was completely oblivious. Three weeks earlier, on January 7, two men with automatic weapons entered Charlie Hebdo. They murdered twelve people and left eleven wounded. The night before, Meurisse had broken up with a boyfriend. So, like her colleague Luz, she was late for the rendezvous. The pair scrambled to shelter in a nearby theater – filled within minutes by their shattered, injured friends.

Life as all of them knew it had changed in seconds.

It was April of 2016 when Meurisse surfaced again. She returned with an album called La Légèreté (the word means "lightness," but also carefree nonchalance). Written from inside a story everybody thought they knew, the album follows an isolated and individual struggle. "Légèreté," the author told Le Monde at its debut, "is what I lost on January 7th and I'm still trying to find it." The work has her customary self-deprecation, as well as numerous mordantly funny moments. But it is almost more a poem than a memoir. Concluded with a fragile, almost lyrical moment of truce, it is moving and also quite unsettling.

Widely acclaimed, La Légèreté has been published in Spain, Japan, and Germany. An Anglophone e-book version also exists, as Lightness. Soon its story will appear onscreen, in a version co-written by Meurisse and director Julie Lopes-Curval. Meurisse is played by French actress Isabelle Carré, the voice heard by visitors to D'après nature.

Meurisse followed La Légèreté with Les Grandes Espaces ("The Wide Open Spaces"), which tells the story of her rural childhood. Its "plot" revolves around the progress of her family's house – a ruin they reconstructed – as well as their garden, and the small "museum" created by Catherine and her sister. It is the artist's finest work to date.

Thus, thanks to Cassandra Darke and Les Grandes Espaces, this year Pulp Festival featured two masterworks. Each of their authors kindly took the time to chat.

***

POSY: ONCE MORE, IN ENGLISH

Posy Simmonds has been speaking French all week: on the radio, on stages and in bookshops.

In French, she's named British graphic heroes like Hogarth and Rowlandson, Ronald Searle, and Gerald Scarfe. She's described a preschool infatuation with volumes of Punch. Frequently, she mentions longtime Francophone favorites: Hergé, Astérix, Claire Bretécher, and Sempé.

Asked to describe a "personal Proustian moment," Simmonds evoked the smell of 1950s US comics. Thanks to school friends on an American air base, she was a fervent fan of Blondie, Sad Sack, and Krazy Kat. "One of my strongest memories is the smell of the ink in those pages. I would fall asleep with them spread across my face."

Simmonds also spent time explaining how she creates – with images preceding words. Characters, she says, are assembled in her sketchbooks. "That's where I make the really important decisions, it's how I decide the eyes and ears and noses and figure out the clothes. I'm like a film director and sketchbooks are my casting couch." Much also comes from just watching and listening. "I walk all over London and pass through all kinds of neighborhoods. Also I travel a lot by bus."

When asked how Dickens helped inspire Cassandra, Simmonds' response is always the same: "In London, the rich part of the city keeps on getting richer and the poor one just gets poorer. Everywhere you see more homeless people, more people begging. There are more people sleeping rough – and now we have all these food banks. I just started thinking, 'It's a new Victorian age.'"

But the Londoner always mentions her love for Paris. "That first time I found myself in Paris it was so intoxicating. I even loved the odors: the smell of cafés, bakeries and Gauloises … even the pissotières, the old public urinals. For me, Paris always remains inspirational."

From "Sherlock Holmes in Paris" for Le Figaro © Le Figaro/Posy Simmonds, all rights reserved

"J'ai deux amours", a two-floor exhibition, salutes her position as a true Franglaise. It's comprehensive and bilingual, with a very clever design. One of its "attic" rooms, for instance, is wallpapered in Toile de Jouy. Nothing could be more traditional, more middle-class, more French. But look more closely and you see it's drawn by Posy. In among the usual scenes of bucolic courtship are dotted rutting pigs and dogs sniffing each other's bottoms. Other treats include her caricature of Theresa May's shoes, the French newspaper commission "Sherlock Holmes à Paris", and a mini-portrait of Mrs. Thatcher wearing armor.

Simmonds herself is thrilled with the show. "When they first described it to me, they sent along some pictures. Which, in a way, looked like the farm but, at the same time, absolutely didn't. Then, when they started saying, 'And of course there's our dairy,' or 'We're going to have lithography by the animal troughs,' I was kind of starting to go, 'Ohhhhh … I see.' But when I actually got here and saw it, I was blown away. Totally blown away. They've done it all incredibly well and with so much style. It's a huge honor and I've been enormously moved."

The cover of HERSELF, designed, drawn and written by a 14 year-old Posy © Posy Simmonds, all rights reserved

Posy herself has helped, for both she and the Guardian loaned wonderful rarities. These include original art from her 1981 True Love (according to Gravett, the UK's first graphic novel). There are also publications handmade by a preteen Posy. Some are gory detective tales called things like The Red Dagger! But one is a whole magazine, boldly titled Herself. Entirely drawn by Simmonds – and banned by her school – Herself features hand-drawn ads ("Try Lockjaw Toffee"), scoops ("Lady Whoresham reveals…") and a precocious advice column.

Seeing it all together, Posy confides, feels slightly weird. "It reminds me how hands-on things used to be. When I started out, everything was just so tactile… and there was so much more going into the office. That's something absolutely nobody does any more, everything is virtual. But when I joined the Guardian, you'd go in to deliver your stuff and then you'd sit around chatting. Eventually people would start to look up from their typewriters and make these little gestures like they were lifting a glass. That meant 'Come to the pub.' Now, of course, nobody does that."

"If you go in an office today," she says emphatically, "everyone's back is to you, they're all facing screens. There's no time left for fun. People are too busy working to try and get noticed."

Does she feel the pre-virtual world was more creative? "Actually, I think our age is one of growing conformity. If you see a whole sleeve of tattoos now, you don't even blink – unless they're really good tattoos. Because there are an awful lot of bad ones today, aren't there? Today it's just another commodity, like piercings. People see it as a brand. We're all being encouraged to see ourselves as brands."

She looks resigned. "None of it has to do with making something wonderful. It's all about that murky thing called 'validation.' People want to be recognized, they want ninety million followers."

The social observation at which Posy Simmonds excels come out of a long tradition: a witty, subtle, ultra-English comedy of manners. As formulated by 18th century playwrights such as Goldsmith and Sheridan, this was always visual and, of course, theatrical. Simmonds loves the witty, critical, curious nature of that century. But, from innovations in dialogue to her mise-en-scène, Simmonds has more in common with the genre's later practitioners – Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh and Harold Pinter. Each helped modernize the form, rejuvenating its bite.

"Old Arcadia"; The Guardian, 1986 © the Guardian and Posy Simmonds, 1986

In that sense, the newspaper strip that Posy drew for years was a personal proscenium. "I got very used to doing that half-page every week," she says, "and it really was like a tiny theatrical. Partly because it often didn't carry on it all – outside my cast, there was no continuity. It was more like writing a scene that would be played out. Then that was it. I think I gave George a vasectomy and the guinea pigs died. But the mileage didn't come from having characters change or develop."

Simmonds herself, however, changed her medium. The path she forged to Gemma's story managed to marry sketch comedy, speech bubbles, sequential storytelling and an unexpected quantity of prose. Or, as Michiko Kakatuni put it, "Effortlessly combining large passages of text with amusing line drawings and uproarious comic strip sequences, she gives us a keenly observed portrait of…daily life."

Innovation, Posy tells me, came out of restriction. "When the Guardian asked me to do a serial – what became Gemma – they said 'OK, it's going to be coming out every day. You've got a hundred episodes and the format is like this.' They had just launched a new tabloid supplement and it had to be the length of a page in that. Which meant tall and vertical – but only three columns wide. That was so long and thin! When I first saw it, I thought, Oh God! But, as things progressed, I began to rather like it. Because I had to fit such a lot of story into those episodes and I found I could save space by having text. It was just efficient; you could get part of your back-story across in mere lines. Sum things up without having to draw it all out."

"I learned a lot of other things through saving that space. Text also turned out to be good for getting the sort of silence I really like in comics. Where, with no words, you're free to just travel through the images. There wasn't really much occasion for that in Gemma; it was too short. But text let me have several narrative voices. I always knew there would be a French narrator and I always knew there would also be diaries… Gemma's secret, private voice. Plus, I had to have my own voice – as a kind of omniscient 'camera.'"

Simmonds' ambition paid off. But, with a deadline every day for six months, her trailblazer was a struggle. "I'm fairly quick at drawing so I had thought, 'Oooh, I'll do about twenty episodes, then jump on the back of those.' Rather touchingly, I was as wrongly optimistic as Dickens. Because my production rates soon fell short and, by the end, I was barely, barely ahead. Yet all those limitations did make me solve things. Because when you're sat on a pile of hot conkers [conkers are the horse chestnuts English children use for games], it concentrates your mind! The terrible schedule, the awful format – they forced me into things I might have found."

Christmas shoppers in Cassandra Darke (Editions Denoël, 2019) © Posy Simmonds, all rights reserved

In both its French and its English editions, Gravett's book on Posy's art is called So British! But over the past few years, thanks to the Brexit vote, competing visions of "Britishness" have ripped apart the British isles. How, at such a moment, does Simmonds see her art's basic character?

She doesn't take long to answer. "Well, I myself wouldn't have thought I was all that 'British.' Sometimes, of course, people consider my humor and say 'Oh, that's just so English!' If I analyze it I usually think, 'OK. Maybe I said that in an understated way.' Maybe it's that old thing about understatement. Certainly there is a lot of subtext to English speech, as there is in English life. But the real question is, what does that subtext mean – and what does it mean today?"

***

CATHERINE & THE COUNTRY

One of the Pulp Festival's highlights is its "Magic'Salon": a mirrored carnival tent that houses a café/bar and a bookstore. The space also has a stage that hosts convivial chats. The special hour between Posy and Catherine drew a happy crowd. The two stars didn't disappoint; they proved deft and complicit crowd-pleasers. But each also strove to give genuine value, sharing serious tips and views even as they joked around. Drawn together by country childhoods, work in the weekly press and – above all – the gift for social satire, their informal meetup was a high point of the Festival.

Although "J'ai deux amours" captures Simmonds's whole career, Meurisse's D'après nature is focused on Les Grandes Espaces. Occupying the whole of the site's onetime stables, it's an installation with art, film and sound. Only a few of the works on show are the book's original boards, yet art covers the walls and pops up in corners. Rather than "reading" a BD on a white gallery wall, it provides a fantasy voyage to the country.

Catherine sets off in search of le temps perdu in the beginning of Les Grandes Espaces, Catherine Meurisse (Dargaud, 2019)

In a darkened Magic'Salon, Catherine sat down to discuss it. But, before considering the show, we talked about her book. For Les Grandes Espaces is not exactly what it seems. Albeit less overtly than La Légèreté, it too is a book about survival. From the sisters' museum to their rural schoolyard, the work's portrayal of childhood is unerring. It's also hilarious, whether tiny Catherine is arguing with a garden gnome or dreaming about the family property's history. (She imagines Louis XIV riding up on a My Little Pony). But over it all loom the future events readers already know.

In fact, Meurisse drew activist "rural reports" for Charlie Hebdo. By 2014, she was thinking of turning them into a book. After the murders, when she left the paper, the artist decided to resurrect the project. But, when she looked at her old notes, they were a foreign language. The album she eventually imagined – Les Grandes Espaces – seems more like a sister volume for La Légèreté. But is that really what Meurisse intended?

"Of course you can read both books independently," she says. "But when I wrote Les Grandes Espaces, the subjects in my head were still very much loss and death and finality. After Charlie, those motifs forced out everything else and it was those ideas that drove La Légérété. But I wanted to retrieve a reassuring décor and I needed that to reflect on all the loss… Because I had lost friends, artist friends and journalist friends, and I almost lost my métier itself. For a long time, too, I also lost my actual memory….all of which I had touched on in La Légérété."

The fear of such loss continuing was hard to control. "In a sense, obviously, I had also lost my childhood and I had this terror of losing my family home. So, above everything else, what I wanted most was to capture, to preserve things. To somehow save everything I knew that was good and beautiful. All of those ideas were behind Les Grandes Espaces."

Learning about Roundup pesticide in Les Grandes Espaces, Catherine Meurisse (Dargaud, 2019)

Strangely, having managed to fashion La Légèreté, Catherine's dread has somehow given her a greater audacity. Where once she succeeded through craft and a dazzling style, her imagination itself now has stronger muscles. She's also started to work – with more control and a longer perspective – on bigger canvases. Could such a change possibly have happened consciously?

"I don't know… I do know that, though there was certainly melancholy, there was something I wanted. And that was to patch something together … figure out some kind of D-I-Y that could reinstate order. So that, in the book itself, there would be no real sadness… so my own sorrows couldn't be visible in it. Because I had approached La Légèreté in such disarray. I had just thrown all these ideas and images onto the paper: stones, ruins, death, recovery, ideas about rebuilding a self. I threw all of it in without real reflection, because the book was written as I lived it. I hope it's the only thing I ever have to write like that – but it was a book I needed."

With La Légèreté, she says, text and images came separately. "That wasn't out of habit. It was because I was struggling so much to recover my words. After Charlie, I didn't just lose my memory. I had trouble even getting words in the proper order. Often, I had problems forming complete sentences."

By the end of 2015, Meurisse was a refugee at Rome's Villa Medicis. This is a residence for creators and scholars that dates from Louis XIV. She stayed there two months. "When I left for Rome, I still hadn't drawn a thing but I always had a sketchbook in my pocket. Every day, I would walk all over the city. I walked all over Rome; I strolled around all the streets and saw every museum. Always I made sure I had this notebook with me, because sometimes a sentence – a sentence constructed normally – might pop into my head. Then I would write it down. That was the way my thoughts finally returned… that's how I came to understand they were safe and sound. All those phrases went into La Légèreté. That book ended up surprising even me."

Meurisse felt that what was missing had gone for good and had a constant sense of life slipping through her fingers. "Now I know some of that was classic trauma. But, at the moment I showed those pages to my editor, I felt, 'I'm mad, I'm crazy now, this can't make a book… It just can't work, I don't know anything anymore.' I didn't even know if any of it should ever be seen. But my editor never wavered. He just kept saying 'No, no, it's part of recovering. You need to show it all.' And he was right. When the book came out and – especially – when I saw readers returning…Then I finally understood what had been accomplished. For me, that moment remains enormous."

A room of D'après nature (From Nature) @ the Pulp Festival 2019 © Cynthia Rose

Meurisse has always been one-of-a-kind. In the simplest actions, the most quotidian objects, she has a knack for sniffing out transcendence. It's no surprise that, if she cites an inspiration, it can be Diderot as easily as Marcel Gotlib. But her post-Charlie books show a definite change – and they stand apart from all her previous works. Not only is what they have to offer more profound. They also achieve a different kind of storytelling, one that communicates more widely and more deeply. Does their author agree; does she feel a difference?

"Yes, I think I do. It's as if all those events… all the drama and utter catastrophe, it almost annihilated me but it also woke me up. It woke me up and made me want to speak about essentials. In Les Grandes Espaces, when I tell that story, it's not just for the pleasure of describing my childhood, or to have a laugh or to settle my score with Monsanto. It's in order to talk about things that are vital to all of us".

She leans forward. "I only tell about one childhood spent in a single garden. In reality, growing up like that is a sort of huis clos [the French for confidential discussions held 'in camera']. But, in fact, that space is filled with the smallest, most precious, most important things in our world… because you see growing trees and vegetables, flowers that flourish and bloom… you see every emotion. It's life, it's actually the whole world in miniature. But it's also a place of fulfillments and thriving. So it's your own growth you prepare, your own kind of development… and that's the real story contained in Les Grandes Espaces."

At the end of the book, young Catherine steps out from underneath the sunflowers. When she emerges, she is taller than they are; she has become the Catherine who is speaking to me. But that slim, solitary caricature on the page is not unprotected: "Les Grandes Espaces is very much about this idea of protection, about how that gets built. It's about the kind of protective envelope you find on an onion, even one from the humblest vegetable patch. It's about how you form that… through observing nature, gaining sensitivity, reading books and making countless observations. With all that, you're equipped to go confront your life. To face those unknowns that, as we know, can be very violent."

Her parents, she discovered, felt this from the start. "When I was almost finished with Les Grandes Espaces, I asked them about it – just in case I had somehow made stupid assumptions. But they were way ahead of me. They said, 'No, from the very start we wanted to ensure you girls had real foundations.' And it was true; my mother always used to say, 'We're here to make certain you get your box of tools!' Which, for her, meant one thing: nature. Because nature is transparent and nature is frank. It offers you the tools, then it's up to you to make use of them. You start out by observing and coming to understand. How things grow, how they change, how they die … Then you start to deploy, to cultivate, an imagination. You see that time passes and you learn what it can bring."

"Voilà," says Catherine. "Tthat's a box of tools that can send you forth in life! If I can go back one more time to Charlie… after the attack, I kept on wondering, 'How can it be possible that I haven't lost my mind?' 'Why haven't I just totally fallen apart?' For all of us, for all my friends, it was just the same. There was always a fear that we were going crazy and, if we hadn't already, it was just a matter of time. Each person had to find their own way to keep on going. I started by searching in nature, painting and literature; I opened up my trusty box of tools."

If this sounds trite or prescriptive, I haven't done Catherine justice. But her installation at the Festival certainly does. In it, every room in the stable gets its own tableau. One contains a replica of the sisters' little museum; in another, giant, hand-drawn flowers surround two lawn chairs. One stall is closed, but through its peephole you get a glimpse into the Louvre's Grande Galerie – in the form of a tiny model by Meurisse. (This refers to part of the book where her family visit the Louvre and a tiny Catherine finds herself transported. The landscapes by Corot, Poussin, and Watteau look like home… but better!)

The peephole into the Louvre's Grande Galerie as remembered by young Catherine; D'après nature (From Nature) @ the Pulp Festival 2019 © Cynthia Rose

These days, Catherine's elder sister Fanny works for the Louvre. "In our family," Catherine laughs, "each of us still has their pantheon. Fanny loves Caravaggio. For myself, I need Flaubert and Balzac and I depend upon Proust. I cite all of them whenever I like, whenever I want. They're always there, whenever I might need them."

She's right. Stendhal, for example, brings part of La Légèreté some comic relief. In Rome, the disconsolate cartoon 'Catherine' bumps into him (Stendhal lived from 1783 to 1842) and convinces him to cruise the local ruins. But every time she sees an armless or headless statue Catherine panics, visualizing torture and decapitation. Stendhal's longer sense of history makes him more upbeat. After all, he points out, no era has a monopoly on barbarism. The very damage she's looking at dates from 1084 and, what's more, it was inflicted by a Frenchman!1

Jokes like these were made out of serious stuff. "I caricatured Stendhal because he was there. In Rome, he really was beside me all the time. The freedom in that kind of humor offers genuine liberty – and I know it came from the time I spent at Charlie. There, on the one hand, we respected nothing yet, on the other, we respected everything. At Charlie, you had colleagues involved with creativity really, really deeply, in every one of its forms… You had Cabu, Wolinski, you had Philippe Lançon, who is a truly great writer… Even Charb – he so adored Russian novels! There was Luz bending your ear about German writers and Mustapha with his Baudelaire… Everybody there was extremely cultivated. But they were never pretentious."

She's right; cartoons and caricature are only part of Charlie. Each week's issue carries around 20,000 words of writing. While some is devoted to mockery and parody, there are also editorials, ecological activism, features, reportage and ruminations on art, music, literature, and cinema. If pop culture figures in it, so do history and philosophy.

Meurisse defends the recipe as ardently she does her writers… and you can't help but endorse her imagination. After all, who wouldn't want to see Rome with Stendhal? With Caravaggio? Who doesn't want to know more people like Pierre Loti? (It was Loti's 1890 book about his childhood that inspired Catherine and Fanny to create a museum.) 2

Catherine Meurisse re-creates her childhood "museum" in D'après nature (From Nature) @ the Pulp Festival 2019 © Romain Darnaud, all rights reserved

Loti himself – whose real name was neither "Loti" nor "Pierre" – was a nomad who made it to Polynesia, Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. He liked high heels, collected photographs of sailors, kept all the corpses from his childhood bird funerals and often dressed up like the god Osiris. In 19th century France, few authors were more popular even though, as fan Henry James put it, "He was familiar with both ends of the spectrum of taste."

We can't all travel like Pierre, nor can everyone read him. But Catherine Meurisse knows that. Her show's key piece of travel advice comes from Proust: "The only true voyage… is not to head for new landscapes but to possess new eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each one of them sees, that each one of them contains…"3

"It's true," says Meurisse, "that 'culture' can be intimidating. Great, classic literature can seem daunting and so some people hesitate to approach it. It's the same with art and painting. But, the closer you get, the more immersed you become, the sooner you start to understand how great artists belong to everyone who needs them. You can mock them just as much as you can laugh or cry along with them. You can do whatever you want because they're here to help us. They help us see our lives better, see the things that surround us more clearly."

"That's what I'm trying to say, in my own way – which is of course more rustic and more than a little burlesque. But I know I'm right! It's not that figures like Proust and Caravaggio have 'feet of clay'. It's something much more important. It's that we need to let them into our lives, feel them right beside us. Great artists and writers, that's why they exist."

Not to forget, of course, great bédéistes.

"With my press card, M. Stendhal, you'll get in free…"/"That's okay, I have my Senior Pass"; La Légèreté, Catherine Meurisse (Dargaud, 2016)

Many thanks to Posy Simmonds and Catherine Meurisse; Paul Gravett; Dorothée Duplan and Flore Guirard @ Plan Bey; Sylvie Chabroux @ L'Agence Sylvie Chabroux; Vincent Eches, Elise Bernard, Sonia Salhi, Romain Darnaud and all the fermiers @ the Pulp Festival (especially the one who turned on the lights ahead of time for me "J'ai deux amours")

The exhibitions at the 2019 Pulp Festival are open until April 28, on Wednesdays and weekends between 2 and 7:30 pm. In addition to Posy Simmonds' J'ai deux amours and Catherine Meurisse's D'après nature, visitors can also see Alberto Breccia's Les Mondes fantastiques (Fantastic Worlds) and a group show of lithography by artists from Edmond Baudoin to Yann Kebbi. La Ferme du Buisson is reached by taking the RER A from central Paris to the Noisiel stop (from there it's a five-minute walk). Adult entry is €5, reduced entry and children €5. Fuller information here.

Posy Simmonds' Cassandra Darke is available in French from Editions Denoël and in English from Penguin Books

Paul Gravett's excellent monograph on Posy Simmonds, So British!, is available now in French from Editions Denoël and comes out in English on May 24th from Thames & Hudson

"The 7 Ages of Man", 2002 © Posy Simmonds, all rights reserved

  1. "In the 7th century," Stendhal informs her, "the Forum still had all its splendour. But in 1084, when Guiscard came to Rome, his troops totally stripped the buildings, then left them in ruins." Robert de Hauteville, known as 'Robert Guiscard', had been born in Normandy, France.
  2. Le Roman d'un Enfant by Pierre Loti (Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud), 1890
  3. The famous quote appears in Proust's La Prisonnière.
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