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The Simenon Centenary Exhibition in Liège

(13 February — 9 November 2003)

by Peter Foord

Since receiving information at the end of last year, I was intrigued to discover how the Centenary exhibition compared to that staged in Liège in 1993.

2003 exhibit tent between the Place St. Lambert and the Place au Marché. (photo: Joe Richards )

Both set up in the centre of Liège, the 2003 one in a huge tented structure between the Place St. Lambert and the Place au Marché and the previous one in the building that now houses the Museum of Walloon Art (Museé de l'Art Wallon) in a side street off Féronstrée, which leads from the Place au Marché.

The 1993 exhibition entitled "Tout Simenon" (All about Simenon) was held only four years after his death, and, apart from the walking tour, was the only event at that time in Liège to commemorate the author. It was an opportunity to concentrate in one place the many facets of Simenon's work and life. It was held from the 26th of June until the 31st of October 1993 (was then extended until the 14th of November) and attracted 220,000 visitors.

There was a 116-page glossy booklet available to visitors to the exhibition in one of four languages (French, Dutch, German and English). This was a very detailed guide to over 300 displays throughout the exhibition and it was illustrated with photographs. The design team consisted of seven people, headed by Adelin Guyot and Jeannot Kupper (the latter responsible for the 2003 exhibition) who wrote, in the booklet, by way of introduction:

(Extract from the English translation):

'As the title promises, the goal of this exhibition is to reveal for the very first time, the multiple facets behind which we discover the singular personality and the amazing, staggering amount of work of the most famous Belgian French-speaking writer.

This museum-like conception, faithful to chronology, offers thus a biographical approach passing through a triple portrait: that of the journalist-reporter, that of the craftsman of popular novels and, finally, and above all, that of the finest and most fruitful novelist of the century whose works have been the most adapted to the cinema and to television.

The major substance of the exhibition resides in the amount of manuscripts, archives, notes, private documentation, objects, personal belongings, photographs, press clippings, original editions, largely unpublished documents put at the organisers' disposal by the Simenon Foundation, the Simenon family, Simenon's general secretary, private collectors and the publishers.

The didactic lay-out enlivens the written material, the sounds and the images.'

As this section of the introduction indicates, the 1993 exhibition displayed a great deal of material by and about Simenon, a summation of his life in chronological order, starting with the visitor walking through a short cobbled street in the Liège of 1900, with street noises and the shouts of vendors that the author must have known as a young child. At the end of this street was a tram in which visitors waited until being ushered to a lift that ascended to the start of the exhibition on the top floor. The street and tram set the atmosphere that started with Simenon's birth and childhood — and so on — walking through a reconstruction of part of the newspaper office of the Gazette de Liége, and now and again coming upon other three-dimensional settings. Some of these were designed so that the visitor had to walk through them to continue viewing what came next. These included Josephine Baker's theatrical dressing room — suitably perfumed — with her singing on stage somewhere beyond a darkened corridor.

Later the visitor walked through double doors into a corridor (recreated as of about 1950) of the Police Judiciaire, with a bare wooden planked floor and three wooden benches against one wall, between which was the telephone switchboard room and a narrow staircase indicated as leading to Criminal Records. On the opposite side of the corridor were three rooms, one indicating on its closed door that it was the Inspectors' room, whilst the neighbouring room had the name Commissaire Divisionaire Maigret on its door. This door was open so that its interior could be seen.

Other three-dimensional settings included the supposed "Glass Cage" that Simenon was to occupy in full public view whilst he wrote a novel (an event that did not take place), large glass boxes that contained many of the first editions in many languages, a seedy hotel corridor with a half-open door of a room where a murder has taken place, an autopsy room in the Institut Médico-Légal and towards the end of the exhibition there was Simenon himself seated at his desk, writing (a life-size waxwork of the author produced by the Grévin Museum in Paris). After this there was a large space with, on its walls, many of the cinema posters of films based on Simenon's work. The other feature of this area was a café where the visitor could obtain light refreshments — appropriately this café bore the name "Brasserie Dauphine" — and a shop where, among other items, it was possible to buy books by and about Simenon.

Beside these three-dimensional settings there was a host of material to look at, so much so that I visited this exhibition five times, with a month in between my two stays in Liège. I consider it to be one of the best retrospective exhibitions that I have ever seen.

The thinking behind the planning of this Simenon Centenary year in Liège was to celebrate it in many ways, with the exhibition "Simenon… Un Siècle!" set up in the centre of Liège as a focal point. The 64 page booklet entitled "Année Simenon" (Simenon Year) details the various events scheduled for 2003, which run to over sixty, including some smaller exhibitions held for short periods of time.

The Artistic Director, Jeannot Kupper, by way of introduction has written:

'The overall approach of "Simenon… A Century!" is quite different from the previous exhibition (i.e. in 1993). Its aim is to convey in three dimensions, and with the aid of settings, a thematic approach and not a chronological survey of Georges Simenon. The voice of the novelist himself guides the visitor through his visit of 13 different themes.'

The Centenary exhibition (which was extended until the 9th of November) was about a third of the size of that held in 1993, but although the approach was different, there were parallels for comparison.

Both exhibitions set a balance in the layout, juxtaposing items displayed in cases behind glass with the realisation of ideas in three-dimensions, aiming, hopefully, to inform as well as to capture the imagination and to set up curiosity.

N° 5 (originally 10) Rue de Gueldre, just off the Rue Léopold, where the Simenon family lived on the first floor from July 1903 until April 1905 (photo: Peter Foord).

Whatever the approach, both exhibitions had to begin with Simenon's birth and early years. In the Centenary exhibition there was a corridor on whose walls there were photographs of the Liège of about 1900 leading to a cobbled, dimly lit Place, or Square, with street lamps and wooden benches and a simple six-sided kiosk in the centre. The illuminated glass-fronted cases around the walls displayed items that chronicled Simenon's early years, his time with the Gazette de Liége and his early writing. The kiosk in the centre displayed 160 of the novels and some of the collections of short stories that he wrote on a variety of themes (mainly adventure, crime or romance — some of it mildly erotic), under seventeen pseudonyms and aimed at as wide a market as possible. One detail of this setting intrigued me. On the right hand wall just inside the entrance of this "Square" was a plaque with the street name Rue de Gueldre. After living at 26 (now 24) Rue Léopold, Simenon's parents moved to 10 (now 5) Rue de Gueldre in July 1903 just five months after Georges' birth, occupying the first floor between a tailor on the ground floor and a member of the police force living on the second. This short and narrow street is only a few yards from where Georges was born. It is the first turning on the right after leaving 24 Rue Léopold going in the direction of the river. The Simenon family lived there for twenty-one months before moving across the River Meuse to the district of Outremeuse to the Rue Pasteur (now the Rue Georges Simenon).

One feature of the Centenary exhibition was of placing Simenon with other writers, two of the themes being in the form of three-dimensional settings. The Artistic Director, Jeannot Kupper, also added in another statement to go with the one quoted above:

'Furthermore, this journey into Simenon's world should be for us more surrealist, closer to that Belgian spirit of which he was one of the principal ambassadors.

We wish to invite you on board this imaginary ship where Georges Simenon comes into contact with Gide, Hemingway and others, and to see you stroll about this commissariat from another time where Maigret, Nestor Burma, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes investigate side by side.'

The first of these is what the guide stated as:

' Climb aboard a liner with a distinctly Surrealist atmosphere…. Georges Simenon talks of his major news reports, from the canals of France to the Islands of Polynesia.'

This groups together elements that could not exist in reality.

This took the form of six cabins on board a liner, each one belonging to a writer, the first to Simenon, followed by one for Jack Kerouac, then Louis-Ferdinand Céline, André Gide, André Malraux and Ernest Hemingway. Gide was the only writer from this group that Simenon knew well and they corresponded for a number of years. All these authors were controversial in various ways in their personal philosophy, if not in their work. The travelling that they experienced is reflected in their writing. Was this the reason for bringing them together? Or was there another reason? During the late 1920s through to the mid-1930s Simenon travelled to various parts of the world, much of it sponsored by newspapers and magazines in return for his many series of articles. His travels also provided him with locations and themes for some of his novels and short stories.

The second comparison, named in the guide as The Commissariat, was again in a series of six "rooms", this time each one devoted to an author's created character. So there was Simenon's Commissaire Maigret's office in the Police Judiciaire, Leo Malet's Nestor Burma's Fiat Lux Detective Agency, the office of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow, the flat at 221B Baker Street of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, the autopsy room of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's compartment on the Orient Express train (this last setting confined only to a still photograph from the 1974 film "Murder on the Orient Express" — hardly a three-dimensional reconstruction!). Locations associated with one police officer, four private investigators and one forensic pathologist.

The third comparison was that of the physical act of writing. In Simenon's case the strict routine — the mental process as he goes for a walk, later checking that everything is in order, the sharpening of the hard grade pencils, that the typewriter is mechanically sound, the cheap orange-yellow envelopes on which he writes his preliminary information as a memory aid, adequate supplies of paper, pipes, tobacco and matches, maps and reference sources that may be needed, a calendar to indicate each day's work, as well as sufficient coffee and wine — all in place so that he can make an early morning start writing one chapter a day. Many of these items were to be seen, and many of the Maigret novels and the other ones were written within this time structure, but some of them (Pedigree, The Long Exile, The Patient/The Bells of Bicetre, The Shadow Falls/Donadieu's Will) took longer. This method by Simenon was compared to those used by others such as Marguerite Duras, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Troyat, Bertold Brecht and others, but incredible as working methods are, to the reader it is the end product that really counts.

Having looked at these three themes on my two visits to the exhibition, I am still not convinced that they added anything to a greater understanding of Simenon, than that he was writing contemporary to certain other authors who became well known through their work, that his creation, Maigret, holds his own alongside other famous fictional investigators and he had a strict routine when in the act of writing. Maybe I missed the point and that my judgement has been coloured by my memory, and my notes, of the 1993 exhibition, which covered these aspects, the author's travels and his character, Maigret, in much more detail with the appropriate material. I am also aware of the fact that by commemorating the centenary throughout many locations in the city, certain original items were required elsewhere and thus not available to the central exhibition.

Between these themes there are sections devoted to the creation of Maigret and what are called the novels of Destiny.

The section devoted to Maigret included the four novels written under pseudonyms (sometimes referred to as the proto-Maigrets) in which Simenon introduces a police officer of that name, as well as articles in which he explains how the character evolved. There were a number of novels in hardback and paperback editions in various languages dating from 1931 until the present, including examples of those produced in bande dessinée(strip cartoon) format. With these were other items that gave a cross-sectional view of how universally successful and popular Maigret has been throughout the years.

There was a separate room given over to Simenon's other novels, or rather a selection of them, each one having its own glass-fronted case with the relevant documents, the orange-yellow envelopes on which the author wrote the essential details of a novel, manuscripts, the French first editions and other items, and as with the Maigret section, many of the items on loan from the Fonds Simenon.

To date about sixty cinema films have been made based on the Simenon's novels and short stories and this aspect was covered in the Centenary exhibition in two ways. The first with two basic film sets, a bedroom for Trois Chambres à Manhattan (Three Beds in Manhattan), and a kitchen for Le Chat (The Cat). The novel on which the former film was based probably takes its theme from when the author first met Denyse Ouimet, who later become his second wife, whereas the latter is thought to have been based on the second marriage of Simenon's mother. The second showed clips from both films, together with others, in another room set out as a cinema with seating that could accommodate a large group of visitors. The clips of the films shown did not include any of those based on the Maigret texts, nor were there many film posters on show, but in April, in Seraing, a suburb of Liège, several films were screened based on Simenon's work, together with an exhibition of the film posters.

One of the last rooms concentrated on various aspects of Simenon's life, the places where he lived, his two wives, his children and his many friends, coupled with personal items, photographs and visual tapes.

This room led to a three-dimensional evocation of the Simenon "atmosphere", a particular quality in his writing that he can conjure up with deft simplicity. In the exhibition this took the form of a cobbled quayside of a lock, in semi-darkness, against which was a barge. The only source of light came from the barge's cabin. Simenon had two boats, the Ginette, followed by the Ostrogoth, which he used to explore the canals and rivers of France, Belgium and The Netherlands between 1928 and 1931. Waterways figure in a number of his novels and short stories, and this reconstructed setting did well to conjure up his writing of such locations. At the end of the quayside was a small, narrow wooden bridge that led the visitor to the longest three-dimensional setting in the whole of the exhibition.

Called the "Library", this was like a long straight cobbled street; each side consisted only of a billboard rising up from the cobbles to way above the visitor's head into the shadows. The only image on each of these billboards was a row of books, arranged as on a tightly packed bookshelf, with only the spines visible, and each spine was as tall as the billboards. The books were all editions of Simenon's work, a selection of about 130 of them, in many languages. The oversize images were achieved with the same photographic techniques used in producing the huge sheets affixed to billboards. Every few feet, and at normal viewing height, there were small hinged panels along both sides, which the visitor could open. Behind each panel in a glass-fronted illuminated box was a single object — a sewing machine, a revolver, an iron, a set of handcuffs, and so on — each one relative to a work by the author. (This was a variation from the 1993 exhibition where many more novels were on display, comprising the first French editions and related material, including an object associated with particular novels).

The final exhibit consisted of photographs displayed on the walls 'as an evocation of Simenon's Liège' which was an introduction, and inducement, to the visitor to take the walking tour 'in the footsteps of Georges Simenon'.

The main designs for both exhibitions — "Tout Simenon 1993" and "Simenon… Un Siècle! 2003" — both were used in various ways. On the left an example of a small publicity handout, while on the right one of the entrance tickets to the exhibition. (photo: Peter Foord).

Understandably the city of Liège wanted to celebrate the centenary of the birth of its most internationally renowned "son" across the whole of the community. The 2003 exhibition was launched with an evening Private View (by invitation only) on the 13th of February, opening to the public on the next day, with the inauguration of the Place du Commissaire Maigret also taking place on the afternoon of the 14th. This heralded a range of events, in a variety of locations and on a variety of dates, including theatrical performances (two in the Walloon language), music, small exhibitions, river excursions, symposia, film showings, competitions, son et lumière and book fairs, the final ones concluding in the first week of December.

With this policy in mind, it is clear that the fund of 1.75 million Euros (from sponsorship), had to be spread across and to supplement all the budgets for these various events.

I would think that this was a deciding factor to the format and size of the main exhibition. The pre-publicity pamphlets (end of 2002) indicated certain of its features, some of which were not in the exhibition:

(From the English translation version):

'This exhibition will help the visitor to (have a better) grasp of Georges Simenon, the man. In other words, it will offer keys to understanding Simenon. Using a well-liked technique, the public will be asked to wander in an interactive manner through the three-dimensional décor, which awakes curiosity but which most of all creates the famous atmospheres that Simenon described so well in his novels. Without spoiling the charm of an exhibition that needs in any case to be seen and felt by each individual, it can be mentioned that the visitors will stroll for two hours through a railway station concourse, a ship's corridor, a police station, a library, a film set, a writer's office, a platform alongside which a barge has berthed.'

Even with certain advertised features omitted, the exhibition was worth a visit as it did give the visitor some idea of what Simenon was like and what he achieved. Finally I came away with the word "taster" on my mind — there was enough material there for visitors, hopefully, to want to explore the author further.

A familiar Citroën car which was on show in the large tented annex leading up to the entrance of the 1993 "Tout Simenon" exhibition (photo: Peter Foord).
Peter Foord
November 2003


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