Mandela cartoon by Gal
Cartoon celebrating Nelson Mandela's release from prison, 1990. 

Gerard Alsteens is one of Flanders' best-known political cartoonists and graphic artists, who signs his work with GAL. Active since 1960, he is the longest-running cartoonist in the Belgian press. Gal is famous for his social consciousness, biting tone and unique graphic style. Contrary to many other cartoonists he is not out on a trivial punchline, but actual thought-provoking messages. His sharp and sour drawings have often caused controversy and occasional censorship. An idealist by heart, Gal has used his talent to design posters for countless humanitarian causes. He even joined protest marches. The artist also distinguishes himself from his colleagues by constantly experimenting with new styles and techniques. Widely admired and respected in his home country, he is nevertheless hardly imitated. As a result Gal remains a unique artist. 

Early life and influences
Gerard Alsteens was born in 1940 in Oudergem as the son of a grape cultivator. He studied painting and graphic arts at Sint-Lukas in Brussels. Among his graphic influences are painters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Francisco de Goya, Félicien Rops, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Maria Elena Viera da Silva, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring and photographers like Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In terms of cartoonists he looks up to Sempé, Saul Steinberg, Tomi Ungerer, André François, Bosc, Chaval, Roland Topor, Marec, Fritz Van den Heuvel, Randall C., Ever Meulen and Peter van Straaten. As a young man Gal was particularly enthralled by the free-spirited atmosphere of the 1960s, embracing Hara-Kiri magazine, Hugo Claus, Albert Camus, Carlos Castaneda, Pablo Neruda, Mikis Theodorakis, Zjef Vanuytsel, Willem Vermandere, Hugo Raspoet, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré and the ideals of the May '68 movement. 

Cartoon by Gal
Homage by Gal to the 1960s, parodying 'Freedom Leads the People' by Eugène Délacroix. From left to right one notices astronaut Neil Armstrong, The Beatles, Eddie Adams' famous photograph of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém in Vietnam and Brigitte Bardot carrying a socialist flag and a sign with the May '68 slogan "It's forbidden to forbid", while her tummy reads the pro-abortion/contraception slogan "Boss In Own Belly". To her right Che Guevara raises his guns high. In the background we can spot the monk Thích Quảng Đức protesting against the South Vietnamese government by burning himself to death. Below him we see a crumbling Christian cross, symbolizing the growing secularization during this decade. At the centre left we see South African doctor Christian Banard holding the first heart transplant in history. In the left corner below one can spot a small fragment of Roy Lichtenstein's painting "Hopeless", next to John F. Kennedy's corpse holding a photograph of Marilyn Monroe in his hand. In the right corner we notice a defeated French president Charles De Gaulle with his left shoe reading "U.S. go home" next to Andy Warhol's Campbell soup can. Martin Luther King's lifeless body lies next to a Mai '68 poster. In the right corner we can see Brasilia, the architectural complex erected by Oscar Niemeyer in 1960.

De Linie
In 1962, during his final year of St. Lucas, Gal choose for apprenticeship at the weekly magazine De Linie. Although run by Jesuits, the publication did offer room for articles about many different topics, even critical voices. Gal started out as a printer and lay-out artist, often illustrating covers and pages in between. De Linie sometimes serialized novels, which he illustrated too. At a certain point Gal was asked to replace their house cartoonist Pil and made his official graphic debut. He signed his early work with his last name, 'Alsteens', eventually using his now familiar pseudonym 'Gal', a contraction of the first letter of his first name and the first two of his last. The word "gal" is also the Dutch word for "gall (bladder)", alluding to the phrase "zijn gal spuien over iets" ("to express one's gall over something"), which perfectly describes his biting style. In 1964 De Linie was forced to close down on orders of the Vatican and Gal left to seek new horizonts. He became an art teacher at his former school in St. Lucas where he would stay until he retired in the mid-2000s. Two of his former students, Johan De Moor and Judith Vanistendael, would later have an active comics career.

De Nieuwe
Between 1964 and 1984 Gal was house cartoonist at De Nieuwe, a progressive weekly where he established his reputation. He created various political cartoons which stood out for their abrasive tone. Gal had the unique position of being in charge of the visual look of the entire magazine. He was not only preoccupied with designing covers, but also did inner lay-out and illustrations. He always looked back at this period as the most creatively satisfying time of his career. Other cartoonists who published in De Nieuwe during the 1960s and 1970s were Joke, Picha and hugOKÉ. By 1984 sales of De Nieuwe went downhill and Volksunie politician Hugo Schiltz stepped in to finance the indigent publication. Gal refused to work for a party magazine and resigned.

Knack
Since 1984 Gal is house cartoonist of the weekly magazine Knack. He receives a full page in colour to visualize his opinion about current affairs. Since Knack's readership is more varied in opinion and ideology, Gal's cartoons have sometimes led to angry reader's letters. At the same time he has a devoted fanbase. This became particularly clear in 2004, when the artist was struck by an eye embolism. Since he was temporarily unable to draw, Knack lacked a Gal cartoon for several weeks. Many readers wrote letters of concern and sympathy, wishing him a speedy recovery. Eventually Gal managed to overcome his visual handicap and returned to Knack's pages. 

Other publications
Gal's drawings have additionally appeared in magazines like Humo, Tijdschrift voor Diplomatie, De Zwijger (for which he also designed the logo), Panorama/De Post and the newspaper De Morgen. In the Netherlands his work was published in Vrij Nederland and NRC Handelsblad, while in France he could be seen in Le Nouvel Observateur (nowadays L'Obs). 


Comic strip by Gal, appearing in the 1967 'Davidsfonds Cartoonboek 1'. The couple in the first panel is King Boudewijn/Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium; the man in the third panel is U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Style
Gal has often referred to himself as a "graphic journalist", rather than a cartoonist. He is not interested in cracking jokes about news events, but wants to make a powerful statement about an issue that touches him. Gal's drawings show immense compassion for the common man and woman, often exploited by governments and business people. Some of his drawings are instantly clear. Others invite the reader to think a little longer about their meaning. They all show great versatility in subject matter as well as style. Like many other cartoonists Gal too occasionally makes black-and-white doodles or comic strip-like panels. But he is far better known for his fully colourized, hand-painted cartoons, which sets him aside from most other Belgian cartoonists. Inspired by many different classic and modern artists, Gal too frequently experiments with styles and techniques. Some of his work is very stylized, to the point of using abstract imagery. Other illustrations resemble photorealistic paintings. Again others use optical illusions, or are parodies of iconic paintings or photos. Gal has used formats like sculptures, photo collage, playing cards, wine labels, board games, puppets ... and comics (!) for his ideas. Overall he has always been difficult to categorize. 

Comic by Gal
Cartoon from the early 1980s, depicting Belgian Minister of Transport Herman De Croo. De Croo was known for enjoying horse riding and taking financial measures which hurt the common man. 

Social consciousness
Gal's humanity and social conciousness never ended behind his drawing table. Throughout his life he made countless posters and pamphlets for charity and human rights organisations. Among them Broederlijk Delen, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Unesco, the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions), the anti-nuclear missiles movement and the anti-apartheid movement. He actively joined public demonstrations and manifestations to protest against war,  poverty, unemployment, nuclear arms, nuclear testing, dictatorships, corruption, racism, apartheid, the extreme right, pollution,... and other social injustices. In 1981 Gal publishes a poverty-themed cartoon in De Nieuwe, which is probably his most widespread work. The drawing depicts a common worker, whose head is the world. He despairs next to an empty wallet. The cartoon has been reprinted in countless magazines all over the world, including The Unesco Courrier. 

Cartoon by Gal
'World Poverty', 1981. 

Controversy
Gal is notorious for his confrontational style. A 1982 cartoon caused outrage for deconstructing the iconic 1943 photo of Nazis arresting Jewish citizens in the ghetto of Warsaw by changing the Jewish boy in the center into a Palestinian and the soldiers into US president Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Some readers even withdrew their subscription. Interestingly enough, in 1983 the Portuguese cartoonist António made a similar cartoon parody, based on the same Warsaw photo. Only in his case the cartoon criticized the Israeli treatment of Lebanese people. Neither Gal, nor António were aware of one another, so the similarities can be attributed to coincidence. However, António's cartoon won first prize at the International Salon of Cartoons in Montréal that year. In 1993 Belgian king Baudouin / Boudewijn passed away. Gal drew the late king as an angel between the clouds, worrying what will happen to his country now? To his surprise many readers took offense because the beloved monarch was depicted in a night gown.

Gal has experienced the power of his work in other fields as well. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he made many posters criticizing the apartheid regime in South Africa. One evening he watched a news broadcast about a house in South Africa which had been victim of a racist bomb attack. On the wall of the severely burnt out building he noticed one of his anti-apartheid posters. In the early 1980s a liberal cultural organisation asked Gal to make a cartoon for their party member and then Minister of Finance Willy De Clercq. Gal drew the politician - who was known for his curly hair - as a waiter with spaghetti hair. He serves delicious spaghetti from his head to a rich businessman, while a simple worker has to be satisfied with a simple bowl of soup in which one of De Clercq's hairs is floating. After receiving the cartoon, De Clercq wasn't happy with his "present".

In 1996 Gal was invited for a live broadcast of the political debate show 'De Zevende Dag' on the Flemish public TV channel BRT (nowadays VRT). The emission took place in the Flemish parliament. Gal was asked to bring some of his political cartoons, except drawings which criticized the extreme-right party Vlaams Blok (nowadays Vlaams Belang). He simply ignored their request. Out of protest the entire Vlaams Blok fraction left the room, one of them even directly walking up to the cartoonist to insult him, which Gal just laughed off. In 2015 terrorists murdered the editors and cartoonists of the satirical magazine Charlie-Hebdo in Paris. Flemish politician Bart de Wever (N-VA) posted a cartoon by Gal which ridiculed him to make a statement about freedom of speech. Gal wasn't impressed, because De Wever used an old cartoon without addressing the context. 

Cartoon by Gal
Cartoon.

Censorship
On a few occasions Gal's cartoons have been withheld from publication. In 1981 the Belgian government decided to place U.S. nuclear missiles in Florennes, Belgium, despite massive opposition. Gal drew a cartoon in which Prime Minister Wilfried Martens and Minister of Foreign Affairs Leo Tindemans button their pants after having raped a woman in Florennes. Her pulled-down underwear has the same shape as Belgium. De Nieuwe refused to publish this drawing. Four years later the terrorist organisation C.C.C. bombed several locations, but always warned people beforehand that they needed to evacuate the building. Gal drew a cartoon depicting the C.C.C. as a pathetic loser about to be crushed by the giant Belgian state. Knack refused the cartoon because they interpreted it as sympathy towards the terrorists. In 1990 Knack again withheld a controversial cartoon from publication. That year king Baudouin/Boudewijn refused to sign the abortion legalisation law out of personal objections. A government crisis was avoided when the king was legally declared "unable to rule for a few days". With acceptance from the monarch himself, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens then signed the document for him. Gal drew king Baudouin/Boudewijn and queen Fabiola amidst several horribly disfigured babies, with a portrait of Pope John Paul II hanging above them. 

Cartoon by Gal
Anti-nuclear energy cartoon. 

Graphic contributions
Gal lent his talent to other causes too. He illustrated various books, both fiction (Kristien Hemmerechts' novel 'Lang Geleden', 1994) as well as non-fiction (Geert Van Istendael's 'Arm Brussel', 1992, and 'Bekentenissen Van Een Reactionair', 1994). The subjects have been as varied as May '68, Congo, the murder of Julien Lahaut, grape cultivation, illegal weapon trade, communism and the European far-right. He was one of the contributing artists to the book 'Il Était Une Fois... Les Belges'/'Er waren eens... Belgen' (1980), a collection of columns and comic pages published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium. In 1985, Gal made cartoons for Belgian novelist Hugo Claus' poetry book, 'Een Weerzinwekkend Bezoek', which criticized the Pope's visit to Belgium. The same year Gal was one of several graphic artists to contribute to the anthology book, 'Tegenaanval' (De Lijn, 1985), initiated by Patty Klein. The book protested against the conviction of comic artist Wim Stevenhagen who refused to fulfill his military service. Along with Benoît, Quirit, Peter De Roy, Jan BosschaertErik MeynenZak and Jan De Maesschalk he was one of the cartoonists who made a graphic contribution to Johan Anthierens' anti-royal book 'Brief aan een postzegel' in 1990.

The same year Gal also illustrated Guy De Pré's book 'De Pré Historie' (1990), based on his popular oldies radio show. For this book he made a cartoon about every year between 1955 and 1984, summarizing important events of these particular years in 30 individual drawings. Many of these drawings were published earlier in Panorama/De Post. He made posters for theatrical productions, concerts and museum exhibitions. For Flemish comedian Urbanus he designed posters for his tours in the Netherlands. In 2012 Gal also made a graphic contribution to 'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (2012), which honoured the 90th birthday of comics legend Marc Sleen. He joined several Belgian cartoonists to make special cartoons and comics for Gilles Dal’s book "België, et cetera" (Van Halewyck, 2016), a funny look at the history of Belgium. He was one of many artists to pay tribute to Ever Meulen during the 'Ever Meulen & Friends' exhibition in October 2017 in Brussels. On 1 January 2017 several Belgian cartoonists and graphic designers like Gal, but also Jonas GeirnaertJeroom and Zaza, teamed up to redecorate out-of-use "70 kilometres" speed signs. The signs had become useless after 70 km/h became the new regular speed norm outside the inner city. The signs were exhibited in Studio Herman Teirlinck in Brussels and the profits went to the non-profit organization Rondpunt.

Gal also appeared in Benoît Lamy's documentary 'Cartoon Circus' (1972), a Belgian documentary about cartoons and comics, in which he was interviewed alongside Siné, PichaRoland Topor, Cabu, Jean-Marc Reiser, François Cavanna, Professeur Choron, Wolinski, Willem, Joke and Jules Feiffer

Cartoon by Gal
 'Escalation', targeting U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967. 

Recognition
While sometimes angrying readers and politicians, Gal has also won several awards. In 1967 he won the First Prize at the International Cartoon Festival of Knokke-Heist for a cartoon depicting US president Lyndon B. Johnson reading newspaper articles about the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement, while his thinking wrinkles gradually grow along with the length of the articles. Gal was Belgium's selection for the 1980 Biennale in Venice. He designed a sculpture depicting U.S. President Jimmy Carter's smile, with a toothbrush made out of nuclear missiles. In 1988 Gal received the Prize for Graphic Arts, selected by the Flemish Community, and the prestigious Ark Prize for Free Speech in 1994. In 2003 he won the Press Cartoon Belgium award for a cartoon depicting the power shortage in the USA that year: it shows a man strapped to an electric chair, whose illuminated smile lightens up the darkness around him. In 2004 Gal also received the BeNe Cartoon Award for best Belgian-Dutch political cartoon. His winning work dealt with the Nobel Peace Award for the Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi and showes a peace dove flying out of a woman's burka, who immediately shits on the head of an Iranian cleric. The same year Gal also received the annual Human Rights Award from the Belgian Human Rights League. On 2 April 2019 Gal received a honorary doctorate from the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Brussels. A month later, on 4 May, he and Ever Meulen were given the Bronzen Zinneke, a special award for people who promoted the region Brussels on an international scale. Four years later, on 4 May 2022, it was announced that Gal would be the Ambassador for Grootouders voor het Klimaat ("Grandparents for Climate"), a pressure group in favour of government measures against climate change. 

Gal's artwork has frequently been exhibited. Between 16 May and 10 July 2013 he was one of several Flemish comic artists to exhibit original artwork during the 'Wereld van de Strips in Originelen' ('The World of Comics in Originals') exhibition in the Flemish Parliament in Brussels. The exhibition, organized by art critic and museum curator Jan Hoet and politician Dany Vandenbossche, later gained controversy when N-VA politician Jan Peumans objected to a French-language speech balloon on the official expo poster. Since the posters were already printed, the speech balloon was simply blanked. Numerous participating comic artists protested against this censorship, with several, including Gal, asking to have their own cartoons and comics to be removed from the expo. 

He received praise from people like Georges Wolinski, Paul Jamin (despite not sharing his ideology), Karl Meersman (whose style is often confused with Gal), Wauter Mannaert, Vejo, painter Luc Tuymans and novelist Hugo Claus. Since 2014 he is a member of the collective The Cartoonist, an organisation and website established by Marec, who make their archive work and new work available to the public. 


2016 cartoon caricaturing U.S. President Donald Trump. 

Books about Gal
For those interested in Gal's life and work the books 'Gal: De Overspannen Jaren' (Epo, 1996) and 'Gal, Een Halve Eeuw Op Het Scherpst Van De Snee' (Van Halewyck, 2011) are highly recommended. 'Gal: De Overspannen Jaren' was written by Johan Anthierens, with a preface by Brigitte Raskin and graphic homages by Benoît, Zak, Pirana, Jan Bosschaert, Erik Meynen, Marec, Wolinski and Ever Meulen. 'Een Halve Eeuw Op Het Scherpst Van De Snee' features various written homages by Flemish cultural icons. Gal was interviewed in Roel Daenen's book 'Het Is Maar Om Te Lachen. Hoe Cartoonisten De Wereld Veranderen' (Polis, 2016), which collects interviews with Belgian cartoonists regarding censorship, in the light of the 2015 terrorist attacks at Charlie-Hebdo's headquarters. In 2021 a new retrospective book about Gal was published: 'Al GAL. Inkijk In Het Universum van Gal' (Stockmans Art Books, 2021). 


Self-portrait of Gal, created in December 1992 for the magazine Markant to anticipate the upcoming New Year. The original drawing was in black-and-white.

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