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Sequential art and Bayeux

2011 May 5

Last month’s trip to France began with a trip west from Paris, to the old Norman city of Bayeux. Mainly, this was in order to enable a further trip the next day to see Mont St.-Michel; personally I might have preferred a different side-trip, otherwise, but in all honesty Mont St.-Michel alone was really worth the entire excursion to Normandy.

Still, while there I was also going to take a look around Bayeux, which is a charming place. Its main attraction is, however, almost certainly the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux Tapestry postcard, by Heula

Not part of the Tapestry, but instead a delightful postcard I bought at the museum store. I just love it!

The 11th century embroidered account of William the Bastard’s progress toward becoming William the Conqueror, in 1066, is of course familiar to fans of British (and/or possibly French) history, or of comics. Although debates about what should be considered the beginning of comics are endless, nearly any long-term examination of comics history makes some reference to the tapestry; the tapestry also makes prominent appearances in some of cartoonist Bryan Talbot‘s major works, as well.

For all that, I was kind of lukewarm about the idea of seeing the tapestry. It almost seemed too clich├ęd, kind of. Plus, I was already quite familiar with both the story and the actual graphic content of the Bayeux Tapestry; would there really be much in the way of actual new experience for me, there?

I went anyway, since I was there, and happily it was worth the visit. In part because the museum provides a very good audioguide, and listening to a lively and informative guide to the tapestry artwork while actually standing mere feet from the millennium-old physical artifact, itself, provides something that books and films just don’t quite match.

The museum was also worth visiting on that particular day, however, because of a fantastic temporary exhibit which had only recently opened:

Postcard about Japanese Scroll exhibit at Bayeux Museum

Promotional postcard from the museum

The temporary exhibit features a finely-crafted collotype replica of the Scroll of Great Counsellor Ban, another sort of medieval “comic strip,” in this case created in Japan. The original scroll is, like the Bayeux Tapestry, valued as a national treasure.

Both objects are long, horizontal graphic narratives, i.e. comics, produced by two medieval societies widely separated by geography; in all honesty I’m not sure how much the average visitor, myself included, gains from seeing the two together, but the scroll exhibit is still amazing.

The exhibit includes a thoughtful display of the two (in replica form) running in parallel around a sort of large U-shaped space, which is particularly cool since the scroll reads right-to-left and therefore, by displaying the two works on opposite walls, both can be followed in tandom from the same starting point. There is also a very decent collection of ancillary items and displays, which for me were considerably more interesting than most of the models and relics relating to the museum’s main attraction (i.e. the Bayeux Tapestry).

But the highlight of this temporary exhibit is definitely the Scroll itself. I think it’s fair to say that the Bayeux Tapestry is definitely a more historically-significant artifact, but the Scroll of Great Counsellor Ban is more impressive from the perspective of lively graphic storytelling. The Tapestry is not quite as stiff as it seems in every scene, but the compositions and rendering of the Scroll scenes are magnificent. Particularly the way that they take advantage of the viewer’s progress along the very wide document; the overall result is often like watching a long panning shot in a video.

(It’s interesting to note that the combined exhibit of the two works was, apparently, “based on an original idea by Mr. Takahata, film-maker and joint founder of the Ghibli Studio.” The Scroll might, indeed, be considered not only an early comic strip but almost an early example of Japanese animation, despite being one still image.)

I haven’t found any online images of the entire Scroll, unfortunately, but the exhibit is open through the end of this year; if anyone’s going to be in northern France this year, there may be no better time to visit Bayeux’s Tapestry Museum.

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