La Croix L’Hebdo: Twenty bronze cat statues will soon be installed on the Champs-Élysées. The exhibition should have started on April 10 before continuing to Bordeaux or Mulhouse, but was postponed because of the coronavirus.
Philippe Geluck: What a story ! It is a questionable work of several months: we were sending the invitations for the inauguration. But this is nothing of course compared to this new situation that happens to us all. Fortunately, the method of financing this exhibition avoids economic catastrophe: the cities paying nothing, all the manufacturing and logistics of the exhibition were financially supported by the sale of the statues to private collectors. I have given up all profit in order to make this event possible. I hope this is only a postponement.
You are exhibiting on the Champs-Élysées art collectors, patronage … Has your favorite character become an institution?
P.G .: No. These are joyful sculptures, like those of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely (who created machines that make me laugh). I am one of the leaders of the funny art (Laughs) ! In art, humor is a counterpoint, a resistance to power. The official art which reigns since Antiquity is always extremely serious. An apology for beauty, the powerful, the reigning. The Cat, after others, claims to be a counterweight to this official art.
Thirty years before White square on white background de Malevitch, who signed the birth of abstract art, monochrome had already been imagined by Paul Bilhaud or Alphonse Allais, with his red monochrome from 1882, Tomato harvest by apoplectic cardinals by the Red Sea. These are monochrome, but it’s just a joke, and that’s what founds abstract art. It’s exactly the same for me, except that I’m a humorist. After, we must admit that since the XIXe century, caricature, satire, the pamphlet linked to freedom of expression also become institutions.
One of your compatriots, Magritte, was a major figure in this humorous art…
P.G .: It is him, the missing link between the “classic” painting of surrealism and the cartoon, with designers like Steinberg, Chaval, etc. He makes the link. His painting tells me a story that makes me laugh, moves me, touches me.
This humor that dares very far, is it typically Belgian?
P.G .: Yes, Belgians have a second degree appetite and ease that not everyone has. It seems to be in our DNA. This is also true for the Czechs, and all the small nations who used to be mocked, despised or martyred. They have developed their own sense of resistance that is often self-deprecating.
Your father was a distributor of films and imported many from Eastern countries. It was a culture that few children should have …
P.G .: Indeed. I had pictures of artists who were big stars in the Soviet Union in my room. When they came to present a film in Brussels, my father invited them to dinner at home. I came to say good evening in my pajamas and the next day I had autographed photographs in Russian. And my friends told me ” but who is it ? “ and me, proud “Great actors! “. I was the only child in the West to have pictures of these actors. It actually does something that others don’t have. At school, I was trying to convince my friends that Gagarin was the greatest hero that Earth has carried, that the Americans in space were nothing but copiers. My father was someone very funny. He frequented the actors of the Prague Spring. He told us the stories that were told there under the coat. Humor of resistance to power.
When I saw the movie Not everyone was lucky to have Communist parents, I said to myself “But it’s my childhood! “. The only times I went to the show with my parents was to see the Moscow circus, the ballets of Igor Moïsseïev or the choirs of the Red Army. The only French singer we had a record at home was Jean Ferrat. And not entitled to Coke, Monopoly. I’ve never seen a single Walt Disney in my childhood. I was looking The Little Mole, a beautiful Czech cartoon, but that… and the films of Jiri Trnka. I could talk less about it in school. It was a caricature.
What did it bring you?
P.G .: I did not have the necessary hindsight to see how much they were mistaken in their enthusiasm for this political project. But their sincerity, their humanism, their spirit of solidarity (they were communist militants without ever having taken their card from the Party) touched me. They were in love with freedom, pacifism, fraternity. When I started to make a very good living, I was a little embarrassed about them, so I immediately completed their retirement. And when we bought a building in Brussels with my wife, we didn’t dare tell them. Because I had been brought up with the idea that the owners were bastards, that the people who made money were necessarily garbage and that there was no solution except in equal pay for all. But my work generated copyright. Olivier de Kersauson once told me: “It is the noblest money there is because you bring happiness to people, you take nothing from anyone and it is proportional to the success you have. “ After a year, I took my courage in both hands to go tell them. And obviously, they were overjoyed!
How was Le Chat born?
P.G .: In 1980, I married my wife and to thank our friends, I draw a small card which represents us, her, and me in cats, one overlapping the other. The male wore round glasses so that we could easily see who was who. They were cats because I had made preparatory sketches with rabbits and dogs. Rabbits were a little too easy, dogs were not pretty. Cats made everyone laugh. Three years later, our son Antoine is born. I redraw the two cats with the baby cat in front of them. Two and a half months later, a journalist friend at Evening, Luc Honorez, asked me to send ideas for a regular column that they planned to launch in daily life. He tells me “It could be good for you”. The newspaper had 350,000 copies at the time. The day before the due date, he calls me and tells me ” it’s tomorrow “. And I answer him “Yes, yes, I bring this to you in the newspaper”. In truth, I had completely forgotten! In the evening, we put the little one to bed, my wife, tired, goes to bed, and I start to “crobard” things. And this is where I draw for the first time no longer a cat but Le Chat. I put on a coat, a shirt and a tie, I make him say two three bullshit, not transcendent but not bad, I make two three strips and I say to myself ” Well… “. I go up to our room, my wife was not asleep yet, I show her and … she’s laughing. I think it’s a good sign. So I bring the work as agreed to the editorial office, and in the afternoon, they call me back and tell me: “We chose you. “ I learned later that, on March 3 at 10:30 p.m. when I invented Le Chat, Hergé died in great secrecy in a Brussels clinic. There is a kind of sign! This is where I get confused when I say that I am a convinced atheist. I feel more and more that he put a hand on my shoulder, saying to me: “Now son, it’s your turn. “
You chose an art form, the comic strip who is more American than French.
P.G .: Yes, and that has been taken to heights: Peanuts (Snoopy) by Charles Schultz, Hägar Dünor by Dick Browne. But I didn’t just strip. There was also drawing and board (full comic book page, Editor’s note). It is this mixture which allowed the Cat to exist, with also its recurring guests, like the Venus of Milo, Roger the barman, the women in burqa, the old diverted engravings… They come to decorate the rhythm, not to have always the same character who could end up becoming invigorating.
What did you want to do by creating Le Chat?
P.G .: First make you laugh. But I realized along the way that laughing could also make you think. Transmission is also something fundamental. I made an exhibition at the budding Museum for children where Le Chat allowed, by commenting and diverting them, to introduce the youngest to masterpieces of art. When I could hide in a little corner and see people laughing in front of the paintings, see the children, hear them say at the exit “Wow, that was great! When do we go back to the museum? “, I was happy. If I can bring that, give the taste of art to kids and future adults, apart from what I try to bring about laughter, reflection, the point of view on the world in which I live is good.
Why does Le Chat affect people so much?
P.G .: He has a rather nice head, he does not look for compliments, he is fat physically. It has this side Obélix or Achille Talon.
People are happy to be taken in by his humor, which kindly mocks our young and old, with popular good sense. Often people tell me: “This is something I could have thought of, but you managed to formulate it. “ And then its big teddy side also appeals to children, even if it is not them that I aim for when I draw. I have readers of 8 or 9 years old who are passionate about Le Chat and who will not let it go any more in their whole life
Language is important in your gags …
P.G .: Before inventing it, I produced creaky but dumb black humor drawings without recurring characters. When The Cat was born, I discovered the verb in its written formula: aphorism, punchline, the effectiveness of the word, without depriving myself of semantic games. I don’t like the expression “word game”, there is a slightly bold pun side, I prefer the “word game”. My friend and master Siné considered that the best humor possible was a silent one. A situation that makes people laugh and that is universal. For me, the greatest drawing of all time is that of Chas Addams (creator of The Addams Family) on which a skier observes another whose traces pass to the right and left of a large fir tree without him understanding how it was possible. This is the perfect drawing.
The attacks of Charlie Hebdo have they changed anything in the way you work?
P.G .: That day, I was in my workshop, and before collapsing in tears, I said one thing to my colleagues: the time for carelessness is over. Apart from the appalling grief that this represented, the indignation, and the observation that irreplaceable geniuses had been murdered, I said to myself that we should not let ourselves be gagged and that we should continue to exercise our profession as before. I haven’t changed anything in the way I express myself. I would almost say “on the contrary”. But there is one limit that I will never cross, that is to represent the prophet of Islam. I’ve always found it futile and dangerous. It would be committing suicide to do it again.
I think we have to be careful not to hurt peaceful and sincere people who do not necessarily have the same culture, the same training in freedom of expression, at a time when the Internet broadcasts everything and anything to across the planet in three seconds. On the other hand, I always represent women in burqas who face X or Y problems, I continue to speak of all religions.
In your album The Bible according to The Cat, we feel a strong interest in religions, you who have always claimed to be an atheist…
P.G .: Religions interest me for their history, for their influence on societies, for their alliance with political and military power, for the dangerousness of some of their doctrines. And at the same time, I recognize the benefits they may have had on individual anxiety, people who wonder why they are there, why they suffer, why they take their mouths. And that surely helps people get through a shitty existence. My view is that unfortunately, once death comes, it’s over. But wondering about this remains a philosophical exercise that fascinates me. I don’t want to give lessons to anyone, I don’t want to hide my atheism, nor do I proselytize it. Above all, it helps me to be insolent. I think that if I had been deeply Catholic – or whatever – I would not have this detachment from everything. I think that the philosopher is freer in his head if he is an atheist than if he is very religious.
Between the more acidic drawings of your beginnings, or those you are currently making for the satirical monthly Monthly Sine, and Le Chat, what kind of humor do you like the most?
P.G .: Both. There is this slightly more tender and poetic part in Le Chat. These very hard and creaky drawings that I produced from my 13 years until the birth of the Cat corresponded to a period when I was tormented. Even after the wonderful meeting with my wife, I had in my mind an anxiety about death that had obsessed me since childhood, which prevented me from sleeping. As a kid, I read until I fell tired. Maybe that’s why I’m a good reader! I imagined the time which would follow death and which seemed infinite to me. I thought it will be a thousand years, then 1 billion, 10 billion years of non-existence! The humor was a balm over that anguish, but the humor was creaky. I remember the day and the time when this anxiety left me. It’s at the birth of my son, on January 2, 1983, around 8:30 p.m. He screams and I say to myself: ” But of course it is ! Since a being comes to life, another must leave it. Otherwise there will never be enough room for everyone. “(Laughs) At that moment, I admitted my own finitude. Two months later, Le Chat was born. More peaceful, more serene, I realize that humor doesn’t have to be monstrous to be funny, but that it can also be simply poetic. I open the fan at that time. An open fan refreshes, a closed fan is blunt. We can use it to strike.
Do you think you’ve been spoiled by life?
P.G .: I was lucky. My name, Geluck, already means luck or happiness in Flemish. Somewhere I couldn’t do otherwise! But very oddly, most of the things that happened to me were offered to me. I had the choice to say yes or no. The theater, the newspaper The evening, Ruquier, Drucker … It’s just magic.
This exhibition on the Fields is perhaps the first time that I am behind the proposal. I had a happy childhood in a loving family. No tragedy, but we didn’t have a lot of money. I suffered from putting on clothes that I didn’t like. Like that filthy oversized Soviet green coat won by a neighbor at the Party raffle who fell on me. I didn’t dare to say no and I wore it for over a year, with the fur hat brought back from the USSR by my father. At 13, it’s a pain!
Is humor a way of not being fooled by ideologies?
P.G .: Without a doubt. Humor takes you through the most appalling moments that humans can experience. We were two families in the same house, there were two girls the same age as my brother and I. Their mother was raised to the rank of Righteous because she saved 700 Jewish children during the war. All of my parents’ friends were progressive Jews, atheists, many survivors of the camps. One of them told me that laughing at their torturers by ridiculing them among themselves in the camps was one of the things that kept them going and that those who had lost that ability had given up. I find it overwhelming. With my antics, I don’t compare myself to that, but the approach is necessarily identical. Humor helps to live, to survive. It’s one of the ways of thinking about the world, it’s maybe one of the branches of philosophy.
And what is the Chat philosophy?
P.G .: Le Chat is a Bistro Confucius. Besides, maybe Confucius was going to the pub, maybe he was saying things with a drink in his nose, we don’t know (Laughs). His philosophy is that nothing matters since everything is fleeting. Except the others. Because our relationship with others is the most important thing. He could also say to himself that everything is laughable, and especially the most serious, the most erratic and the most important. While preparing the catalog for the exhibition which devotes a chapter to the history of humor in art, I remembered Triboulet, the buffoon of Louis XII then François 1er. He was brilliant, the king adored him, but had set a limit not to be crossed: mention neither the queen nor her mistresses. Triboulet, of course, someday departs from this rule. The King condemns him to death. But since he liked him very much, he gives him the opportunity to choose the way he would like to die. And Triboulet answers: “Sire, I would like to die of old age. “ And the other laughs so much that he commutes his death to banishment. It’s awesome. That’s the philosophy of the Cat: it’s to say that there’s some nonsense behind everything.
You never tire of the Cat?
P.G .: No. Because I’m not at the end yet.
In France, there are fewer designers like Chaval, Sempé or even Siné, and this dates from before the terrorist attacks. Charlie. Why you think ?
P.G .: It’s a profession that has disappeared a bit. In the newspapers, there was cartoons that were not news cartoons, as in The chained Duck or Monthly Sine today. There was kind humor which I liked only half, but, besides that, people like Bosc, Trez, Kiraz, Mose… Today, there is still Sempé, Voutch, Lefred-Thouron . I do not know why, it may have gone out of fashion, like the announcers, I find it a shame.
How do you judge the current humor, omnipresent on networks like Twitter?
P.G .: When it’s good, it’s good. But when it comes to reading the filth that is told … One day, after the terrorist attacks Charlie, there was a controversy over certain remarks that I had made (1). I started to see what was said there. And it made me sick to see that people could express such violent and creepy things, often anonymously. I made the decision that day to never go see those things again. And since then, for me, it no longer exists. When we say : “Yes, but the Internet is a space of freedom …” My eye ! It’s a space, yes, but freedom is a noble thing, and calls for hatred must be punished by law.
One thing for me is inadmissible, it is anonymity. There should be a universal law which imposes everyone’s responsibility for what they say. Otherwise, for me, it is exactly the same thing as publishing newspapers that take up the graffiti on the walls of the toilets. If that’s freedom of the press, very little for me. You can say huge things, but you have to take responsibility for them. Otherwise, it’s anonymous letter, it’s crow, it’s filth, period. And that’s the only rule that works for me.
Is the cat engaged?
P.G .: Yes. He has been a spokesperson on several subjects for a very long time. I myself have been very sensitive to the environmental cause since I was 16 years old. At the time, I was reading René Dumont who, in a prophetic way, announced everything that was happening. Nobody listened to him. He scored poorly in the presidential elections in 1974. Ecology in France has never been taken seriously. In the exhibition, three sculptures evoke today’s problems that are close to my heart, such as this Cat in Atlas carrying a land stuffed with plastic waste or this Cat-Martyre of Saint Sebastian, pierced not with arrows but with pencils on which birds landed. “Tribute to my murdered colleagues”, designers, journalists, photographers. A more serious aspect but which is part of my concerns and the expression of the Cat.
What is your journey, after all?
P.G .: What got through it all was humor. This is my Captain Haddock adhesive plaster. A very funny father, a hilarious grandfather, a great-great-uncle actor who was, it seems, writhing and who made a career on Broadway … There is a kind of undeniable family tradition. And the only times I have deviated from it, for certain serious roles in Elizabethan or Brecht plays, or TV movies in which I played either a child murderer or a terrorist, I was not really happy. There are artists who love to do boring things, because they probably say to themselves that if the public does not understand, that is because it would seem intelligent. It’s a trap that some people fall into. As if being accessible was a bit vulgar. Frédéric Dard suffered a lot from this. He was one of the most widely read authors of the French language, but he was despised by the intelligentsia. And god knows if his work is important. Or Louis de Funès, who invents a genial and universal character: odious with the weak and totally servile with the powerful and who does not even exist in the commedia dell’arte.
You have a cat ?
P.G .: This is my private life! But I have a great relationship with cats. They always come to me.
May 7, 1954. Birth in Brussels.
March 22, 1983. The Chat appears for the first time in the pages of the newspaper The evening. Very quickly, he became the mascot of everyday life.
October 1986. The cat’s first album is published by Casterman editions.
1999. Beginning of his role as columnist on television, in “Vivement dimanche dimanche” with Michel Drucker, and continuation of his collaboration with Laurent Ruquier on Europe 1.
2003. First comic strip entry to the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, with a large exhibition devoted to it.
2016. “L’art et Le Chat”, an exhibition introducing and diverting art for children (and their parents) is inaugurated at the Musée enherbe, in Paris.
June 2020. Exhibition of statues planned on the Champs-Élysées then toured in several cities in France.
Exhibition catalog: The cat wanders, Casterman, 160 p., 35 €.
His house in Italy
It is located in Umbria. It has been twenty-five years since I bought it with my wife. We didn’t pay very dearly for it, because Umbria is unknown, but we did see Tuscany, which is overpriced! I go there every summer, I no longer create drawings but moments of life. I cook.
When I get bored reading a current French novel, I would love to reread a San Antonio, but I know them all by heart! He’s a genius writer, I’ve had the chance to have a great friendship with him. He talks about the Cat in one of his novels, that’s the real consecration. He’s someone I think of. I miss him.
His favorite work
Cantata BWV 25
When I listen to this cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (“There is nothing healthy in my flesh”), I fall to the ground!
His song for life
For life ? Yesterday, of the Beatles. Another oxymoron!
The question of The Weekly
When did you feel like becoming an adult?
I’m still waiting for this moment with curiosity