The curious faces of two little boys in the window of a wooden house appear out of focus, but the shot may also be blurred. The idyllic photo seems deceptive today. It was recorded in 1933 in the Jewish quarter of Vilnius, in what was then Poland. Today the city is called Vilnius and is the capital of Lithuania.
“Images of a world in crisis” – the formulation would go well with the present. But the title of the photo exhibition in the Grand Curtius Museum in Liège, Belgium, refers to a bygone era: that of the early 1930s. It was no less stricken by the crisis: the global economic crisis caused mass unemployment and poverty, new totalitarian ideologies from left and right caused social unrest.
Little known until now: the photographer Simenon
The danger of a new “Great War” was in the air in many places. The name of the photographer was Georges Simenon, and the impressions he captured with his two cameras – a Leica and a Rolleiflex – are impressive contemporary documents. Pogroms, famines and the Second World War were soon to drive out entire populations, wipe them out and cover their tracks.
Georges Simenon as a photographer? The famous writer was born in Liège in 1903 and made his debut as a journalist for the “Gazette de Liège” at the age of 16. He also wrote countless dime novels under at least 27 different pseudonyms. At the age of 19 he moved to Paris. In 1931 he wrote the first novel about Inspector Jules Maigret, which made him suddenly famous, 74 more crime novels of the “Maigret” brand were to follow.
Parallel to these crime novels, which were usually typed within a week, he wrote his “Romans durs”, the “difficult novels”: demanding, psychologically sophisticated works of often existential depth, such as “The Cat” (1967).
His style is characterized by extreme succinctness and an impressive depiction of the milieu. After World War II he lived in the USA with his family for a while before returning to Europe and finding a new home in Lausanne, Switzerland. He died here in 1989.
The exhibition “Simenon – Images of a world in crisis” is a highlight of the “Simenon Spring”, a new festival conceived to mark the 120th birthday of the most famous man from Liège. To this day, Simenon is one of the most widely read and translated francophone authors. The exhibition highlights a little-known side of the author: from 1931 to 1935 he traveled the world as a reporter by ship and documented his experiences in over 3000 photos.
Curator Benoît Denis emphasizes Simenon’s achievement as a contemporary witness whose sympathy was always with ordinary people. Together with his wife “Tigy” and his maid “Boule” (who was also his mistress) he traveled on ocean liners and on his own small ships like the “Ostrogoth”. On France’s canals, he preferred to capture the unattractive, rainy ports with their fishermen. In Africa he visited the Belgian Congo, the colonialist eyesore of Belgium at the time.
Although some snapshots show Simenon himself in the typical colonial garb, with a pipe and a pith helmet next to naked locals, his respect for the people can be felt in all the photos. The strongest images come from Eastern Europe and show the poorest in Warsaw and Vilnius in an unembellished way. Or Odessa at the time of the Holodomor, the famine brought about by Stalin. Snapshots of a world that has disappeared today.
His photos illustrated Simenon’s critical travel reports
Simenon financed his travels with detailed and often critical magazine reports on the regions of the world he visited, the photographs served as illustrations. They also served as material for many of his novels. Simenon’s works are available in German from the Swiss Kampa Verlag and as paperbacks from Hoffmann and Campe, such as the autofiction “Family Tree”, first published in 1948, in which Simenon processed memories of his childhood and youth in Liège.
John Simenon, the 74-year-old son of the author and his rights manager, inaugurated the “Simenon Tour” during the festival, which follows his footsteps in the Outremeuse working-class district. The literature festival discussed in numerous panels at the University of Liège, to which the author left most of his manuscripts in the 1970s, including Simenon’s importance for the literary work of subsequent generations.
Another exhibition well worth seeing, “Simenon – from the major novel to the comic”, is dedicated to new comic adaptations initiated by John Simenon, himself an enthusiastic comic reader as a child. “Simenon, l’Ostrogoth” by Jacques de Loustal tells of Simenon’s youth and the encounter with his first wife Tigy in the artist group “La Caque” (“The Herring Barrel”).
A new series also adapts some of the strongest “Roman durs” with the aim of bringing the whole spectrum of George Simenon’s work closer to a new generation in different artistic styles. But Simenon also remains alive in the cinema: at the end of March his inspector Maigret, played by Gérard Depardieu, returns to the screen.
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