Joost Swarte: Urban and Urbane

March 24, 2014 - May 03, 2014


Dutch artist Joost Swarte (b. 1947, Heemstede, The Netherlands), has enjoyed a distinguished and influential career spanning media including comics, illustration, product design, and architecture. Swarte studied industrial design before participating in The Netherlands’ burgeoning independent comics scene, inspired both by historical comics and by the taboo-breaking “underground comix” that emerged from the American counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. In the do-it-yourself spirit of the day, Swarte began his own publication, Modern Papier, and contributed to the seminal Dutch underground comics anthology Tante Leny Presenteert.


For a 1977 exhibit of artwork by Tintin creator Hergé, Swarte coined the phrase “clear line” (klare lijn in Dutch) to describe the tradition of linework Hergé’s art exemplifies. This tradition includes such historical sources as early comic strip artist George McManus (Bringing Up Father) and early New Yorker stalwart Gluyas Williams, as well as generations of post-war European artists influenced by Hergé. Swarte’s own artwork proceeds directly from the “clear line” tradition, but constructively appropriates and adapts the style to convey ironic humor and contemporary themes and content.


Swarte’s work first gained notice among American audiences in the pages of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW Magazine. His iconic cover for RAW’s second issue (the first was drawn by Spiegelman) bustles with detail as it humorously depicts a metafictional “comic strip factory.” His regular contributions to RAW, with their postmodern, knowing references to European and American cartooning traditions, were emblematic of the avant-garde internationalism that helped distinguished RAW from other comics publications of the time.


Swarte’s dense, but infrequent, comics were produced in parallel to a distinguished career as an illustrator in the Netherlands, throughout Europe, and abroad. His witty and distinctive illustrations have appeared frequently on the covers and in the pages of magazines including the Dutch Vrij Nederland, the Belgian Humo, and The New Yorker, among countless others. Moving beyond the printed page, Swarte has designed a series of Dutch postage stamps, record album covers, furniture, and commercial products including a pair of signature designer eyeglasses.


Swarte’s background in industrial design informs an architectural approach to comics and illustration in which his characters interact with fanciful cartoon-deco urban environments. In recent years, Swarte has fully realized his vision of cartoon urbanism in a variety of large-scale projects. In 1998 he designed the innovative Toneelschur Theater in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in collaboration with the architectural firm Mecanoo. In 2004 he designed a series of large-scale narrative stained glass windows for the Palace of Justice in Arnhem, The Netherlands. He designed the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, which opened to the public in 2009, and recently produced a series of large-scale narrative murals for the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, Belgium.


A great supporter of other artists’ work and of comics culture, Swarte co-founded both the important Dutch comics publishing company Oog & Blik and the biennial Stripdagen Haarlem comics festival.


Joost Swarte was knighted by Queen Beatrix in 2004. A large body of his comics have been published in the US in the book collection Is That All There Is? (Fantagraphics) and he recently illustrated Thrice Told Tales by Catherine Lewis (Atheneum), which deconstructs literature for younger readers.


Joost Swarte: Urban and Urbane presents original artwork, sketches, prints and documentation that survey multiple facets of Swarte’s career — from RAW to The New Yorker to his architectural projects — with a special emphasis on his images of urban life, real and imagined. The work will be on display in the MoCCA Second Floor Gallery at the Society of Illustrator from March 24 until April 26. Swarte will also appear at the 69th Regiment Armory April 5-6 as part of the MoCCA Art Festival, where he will participate in a public conversation with Art Spiegelman.