The Pinacothèque de Paris
presents an exhibition of works by Hugo Pratt, on view from March 17 through August 21, 2011. Thanks to this vast retrospective, the public can discover the breadth of the talent of the creator of Corto Maltese.
This exhibition shows over 150 watercolors, most of them little known by the broad public, as well as historical images, more specifcally the whole of the 164 plates of the mythical Ballade de la mer salée.
Since the retrospective in the Grand Palais in 1986, it is the frst time that Paris has put on an exhibition devoted to the oeuvre of this exceptional artist, regarded as the inventor of the literary comic strip.
Hugo Pratts own life is a genuine novel, characterized by a genealogy combining various cultures. His life and his work were influenced by his literary culture Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway as well as Antoine de Saint- Exupéry, to whom he devoted an album at the end of his life : Le Dernier Vol as well as by his travels to the four corners of the planet.
Born in 1927 in Rimini (Italy), he spent his childhood in Venice. His paternal grandfather, a draughtsman in military architecture, was a Lyonnais of British origin. His maternal grandfather was a Maronite Jew from Toledo, who lived in Venice. His maternal grandmother was a Jew whose parents had left Turkey to work in Murano, Italy. His mother, Evelina Genero, was fascinated by esotericism; her son inherited that interest in magic that we come across in the adventures of Corto Maltese. With such a rich ascendancy, it was quite normal that the draughtsman made of his most famous hero, the son of British sailor and of a gypsy, brought up in the barrio de la Juderia in Cordoba. When he was 14 years old, Hugo Pratt was enrolled by his father in the Italian colonial police in Abyssinia. There he came across the various armies whose uniforms, armories and colors shine forth in his series Les Scorpions du désert.
In 1943, when he went back to Italy after his fathers death, Hugo Pratt attended a military college and, thanks to his mastery of English, he became an interpreter in the allied forces until the end of the war. In April 1945, he returned to Venice to be present at the entry of the freedom fighters, in a Canadian tank, dressed as a Scotsman. « At the time, he said, Venice was a gigantic bordello, an improvised carnival! » He managed to enroll in the New-Zealand army after tattooing his face, like a Maori, with a fountain pen! Already, his legend was under way... Hugo Pratt therefore fought the war in all the camps, and wearing various uniforms...
Hugo Pratt officially became a comic strip draughtsman in 1945, when the first issue of LAs de pique, came out, a comics publication created with two friends. The «Venice Group » was then contacted by an important Argentinean publisher and, in 1949, Hugo Pratt settled in Buenos Aires. His Argentinean period that lasted all through the fifties was very prolific. He worked for the publisher Abril, for whom he drew Junglemen and several other series. The most striking came to light in 1953 with the character of Sergent Kirk. He started to write his own stories, the first among them being Ann de la jungle.
The year he spent in London between 1959 and 1960 was fundamental in Pratts career. In partnership with English screen writers, he wrote war stories for Fleetway Publications but above all, he became familiar with watercolor techniques by attending classes at the Royal Academy of Watercolour.
In 1962, following the downturn of the economical situation in Argentina, Hugo Pratt decided to return to Italy, even though he continued to travel.
During the following decade, Pratts work emphasized his passion for literature. After Wheeling (1962), his first masterpiece, he adapted Simbad le marin, Le Retour dUlysse, Sandokan, as well as his bedside book, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. A voracious reader, Hugo Pratts eclecticism went from travel writers to the mythological tales of several civilizations, from William Shakespeare to James Joyce, from Jorge Luis Borges to John Reed or the Bible by way of Octavio Paz...
Even as he led a life worthy of a hero in a novel, like in Blaise Cendrars or Joseph Kessel, he never ceased to demonstrate via his work that he was the most erudite draughtsman of his time. That was probably why Umberto Eco declared: « When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels, and if, on the other hand, I want to engage in something, I read Corto Maltese ».
Hugo Pratts love life was always eventful. In 1953, he married for the first time in Buenos Aires a young woman of Yugoslav origin with whom he had two children.
He divorced in Mexico in 1957 after meeting a ravishing German woman who became his assistant. Later on, he moved in with his new partner, of Belgian origin, whom he married in Venice in 1963 and with whom he had two more children. In 1965, during a trip to Brazil, Hugo Pratt discovered the existence of Tebocua, another son, he had had with an Indian called Xavantes. That same year, that man who loved women legally recognized other children: the young Victoriana Aureliana Gloriana dos Santos whom he had with a priestess in Macumba, as well as the four illegitimate children of the four sisters. That is how, in Salvador de Bahia, nowadays one can come across a Lincoln Pratt, a Wilson Pratt or a Washington Pratt...
In 1967, after a journey to the Caribbean, Hugo Pratt created La Ballade de la mer salée, which was the first appearance of Corto Maltese. It was a genuine revolution in the ninth art: never before had the art of the author and the art of the storyteller been united in that manner.
In April 1970, the millions of readers of Pif Gadget had the privilege of the first appearance in French of Corto Maltese.
The eighties were those of consecration, with over eight million albums sold. Having been made an honorary citizen of the city of Wheeling in Virginia (USA), he was made a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Jack Lang.
In 1992, he went to the Samoa Islands to visit Robert Louis Stevensons grave.
After an expedition in Patagonia, he published Tango, a very realistic story about the white slave traffic in Argentina. Other adventures of Corto Maltese, La Fable de Venise or Les Helvétiques, were proofs of his taste for the fantastical. In between two journeys, he illustrated poems by Rudyard Kipling, erotic sonnets by Giorgio Baffo or the Lettres dAfrique by Arthur Rimbaud. His trip to Easter Island inspired Mû, the last of Cortos adventures.
In 1983, Hugo Pratt settled in Switzerland, in his house in Grandvaux on the lake in Lausanne, where he died on August 20, 1995.
HUGO PRATT AND WATERCOLORS by Thierry Thomas (Extract).
Draughtsman of comic strips was the only job that Hugo Pratt ever really wished for since childhood from that day in 1939 (he was 12 years old) when the pictures of Terry and the pirates by Milton Caniff fascinated him. At a time when that means of expression was far, very far, from being fashionable, the author of Corto Maltese was without a doubt one of the first to feel, on reading a comic strip, the mysterious call of a vocation. Drawing, and drawing specifically designed to tell a story, became the pivot, the main axis, as supple and resistant as a reed, around which Pratts life, subjected in other areas to many vagaries, was based. For instance, in conversations with him there might occur those significant changes in tone: inasmuch as he could amazingly spin stories on practically any subject, he could equally suddenly become serious, precise, as soon as one spoke of comic strips, whether it was to do with the publication of his works or of the professions problems.
The discovery of the watercolor technique followed upon the most formative period of Pratts life: those thirteen years, spent almost totally in Argentina, when he carried out, based on scenarios which he had not written himself, thousands of plates for series such as Junglemen, Sgt. Kirk or Ernie Pike that were published in black and white in cheap leaflets. At the end of that long stay, Pratt mastered his trade perfectly. To the extent that he felt sufficiently sure of himself to teach in the Escuela Panamericana de Arte in Buenos Aires. During that fifties decade, so joyful for him but also terribly confused, disorderly on the sentimental level, draughtsmanship, more than ever, became a sort of reference point. Pratt knew that he was a draughtsman of comic strips (and, perhaps, already, intimately, an artist); for the rest, it was chance encounters or, shall we say, objective chances, that were decisive in his love life, in his wanderings. In 1959-1960, having therefore left Argentina after a short detour through Brazil, he was in London. He worked on war stories for the agency: Fleetway Publications. What made him decide to enroll in the Royal Academy of Watercolor? What led him towards watercolors? he, who regarded drawings as means of survival (hard to earn a living by producing watercolors!), him, especially, whose style, and very personality, seemed radically opposed to the values of watercoloring, to what makes the beauty of successful watercolors. The visual strength of his plates in fact is linked to the violence of the contrasts born of the juxtaposition of blacks and whites, to highly efficient graphics and to a feeling for cutting out, that embodied the harshness of the battle scenes or of murders, especially in Ernie Pike. As for his life style, the Pratt of that time, when he was not drawing, loved to drink, fight, dance, jazz and the tango, and could easily be seen as domineering ; the watercolors world is founded on evanescence, on the lightness of the brushstrokes, barely placed, which skim over the paper like the fingers of a hand on the waters surface in a lake in a word, on delicacy. It was nonetheless a part of himself, guessed at, foretold, fragile and deep, that Pratt acknowledged by means of watercolor. That which, beyond his will to impress (to leave his imprint), made him love the void as much as the full, and who preferred a sort of supreme non-achievement to the perfection of enclosed works.
That dimension of his being, still fallow when he familiarized himself with the watercolors technique, was to take him about twenty years to flourish, to give into the charm of iridescent colors that cancel out forms (by modesty, he continued to joke about it: of the slim volume of watercolors Occidente, published in 1984, he said: It is an album for old English ladies!); he had to make a name, meet success, thanks to Corto, of course. To be reassured, in other words. And to become himself a character, a master, the one Milo Manara presented in his track of Giuseppe Bergman, depositor of a knowledge in which are ironically combined, the Pratts personal mythology and the founding myths of the history of mankind. At the start of the 1980s, when Pratt, very influential in the publication À Suivre had nothing left to prove, when he had become that total author, carried ever further by his talent as a dialogue writer (and perhaps, on that account, a little less of a draughtsman), the watercolors, in their hundreds, were to spring from his fingers. However, he only agreed to show them parsimoniously, according to the prefaces of the colored editions of the albums.
When Pratt left us, in August 1995, the media only talked about the creator of Corto Maltese and of everything he brought to comic strips. Finally, ten years after his death, the volume Périples imaginaires enabled us to discover that vast unknown continent in his oeuvre. And we realize that Pratt was one of the best watercolorists, undoubtedly a great. We see triumphantly before our eyes, in the transparency of those elegiac images peopled by Indians, magicians, prostitutes, soldiers, sailors, in the autumnal tints of the forests in the Canadian far North, the soft and golden light of the Pacific islands or the dazzle of African deserts, that passion for contemplation that, at the very core of the tumultuous adventures, secretively inhabited Hugo Pratt.