Imaginings of the First World War in Comics: The Role of Image-Making in ‘Une Aventure rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh’ and ‘Les Folies Bergère’ – A Presentation by Maaheen Ahmed

Imaginings of the First World War in Comics: The Role of Image-Making in Une Aventure rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh and Les Folies Bergère

Par Maaheen Ahmed (UGent)

Université de Liège, Friday 20 March at 10:30. Bâtiment central (A1), Salle 2E/1 – Salle Petit Physique

Famous modern painters, who moved away from the figurative impulse of traditional painting, play an important role in the World War One comics by Francis Porcel and Zidrou (Les Folies Bergère) and Manu Larcenet (Une Aventure rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh - La Ligne de Front). In the former, Claude Monet is the protagonist of one of the several loosely interwoven storylines. In the latter, Van Gogh is, anachronistically, sent to the front line to paint. That a painter, and not a photographer, is ordered by the President to capture the essence of the fighting, just like scenes from the trenches alternate with scenes of an aged Monet painting in his gardens, question the role of art in such situations of extreme violence, testing the limits of mimesis, of realism as well as abstraction.

Given that these artists find themselves on the pages of a comic book, the questioning of the role of art, and of image-making in general, is self-reflexive. How can the all too familiar horrors of war be represented in a way that disrupts the aura of familiarity around them? Through giving into the unreal, these two comics seem to answer. Hallucinations, that are mostly nightmarish, allude to the scope of war's ungraspable horror. Images are thus made not only by hand, but also by the minds of the men at the front line. Whereas the soldiers' imagination disrupts the reality of the war being narrated, while giving visual form to the magnitude of the shock experienced by those thrust into it, the interspersing of Monet's and Van Gogh's trademark styles that thrive on color rather than clearly outlined forms also create ruptures based on the stark contrast between the distanced, abstract beauty of art and the immediate, existential horror of war.

This talk will focus on the function and nature of these images, drawn by the painters or imagined by the soldiers and, ultimately, the comics artists, comparing it with the trend of nouveau réalisme in comics (such as those by Jacques Tardi) but also turning to the discourses around shell-shock and the representation of the unrepresentable.

Maaheen Ahmed is a Flemish Research Council (FWO) postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University's English Department, as part of the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative (CMSI). Her current project is on the portrayal of psychological damage in comics in both collective and personal contexts.

A Conference organized by the Comics Research Group ACME ( and sponsored by BeIPD-COFUND.