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 1963, he is the longest-running cartoonist in the Belgian press. He was house cartoonist for De Nieuwe (1964-1984) and since 1983 fulfills the same position in the weekly opinion magazine Knack. Gal is famous for his biting tone, social consciousness and unique graphic style. Contrary to many editorial cartoonists, he is not out on a trivial punchline, but actual thought-provoking messages and critique of present-day politics and society. An idealist by heart, he used his talent to design posters for countless humanitarian causes. During the 1970s and 1980s, his anti-apartheid posters went around the world. Gal's sharp cartoons show tremendous compassion for the common man and woman. They often caused controversy and were sometimes banned from publication. Gal additionally distinguishes himself by constantly experimenting with different graphic styles and techniques. The chameleon explored other artistic fields too, including painting, sculpture and illustrations for fiction and non-fiction literature. Widely admired, awarded and respected in his home country, Gal remains an original, barely imitated and highly unique artist. 

Early life and influences
Gerard Alsteens was born in 1940 in the village Oudergem, around the Brussels-Capital Region, as the son of a grape cultivator. Alsteens enjoyed drawing as a child and studied painting and graphic arts at the St. Lukas Institute in Brussels. He became very interested in modern art, following the latest developments and movements in painting, sculpture and photography closely throughout his career. Later he would reference specific artworks and artists in his political cartoons, while simultaneously experimenting with different styles and techniques. Growing up during the turbulent 1960s, Alsteens was enthralled by the free-spirited atmosphere,, which challenged conventional traditions and ideologies. He embraced the taboo-breaking magazine Hara-Kiri (nowadays Charlie-Hebdo) and equally subversive novelists (Hugo Claus, Albert Camus, Carlos Castaneda, Pablo Neruda,...), musicians (Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, Mikis Theodorakis, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa,...) and other artists. During this decade, Alsteens also became more socially conscious, inspired by the ideals of the Provo and May '68 movements. 

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 Jules FeifferSempé, Saul Steinberg, Tomi Ungerer, André François, Jean Bosc, Chaval, Roland ToporFritz Van den Heuvel, Randall C., Ever Meulen and Peter van Straaten. He has also expressed admiration for Marec.

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.

Early cartooning career
In 1962, during his final year at the St. Lucas Institute, Alsteens 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. He 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. In 1963 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 settling on 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 spew 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. 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 made inner lay-out, illustrations and occasionally picked out the main journalistic topic for that week. Other cartoonists who published in De Nieuwe during the 1960s and 1970s were Joke, Picha and hugOKÉ. Since De Nieuwe's office was located in Schaarbeek, he moved to this town in a house not far from the local train station. 

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. Nevertheless, he always looked back on his years at De Nieuwe as the most creatively satisfying period of his career. 

Lucie Revo
In 1968, Gal also drew a comic series for De Nieuwe, titled 'Lucie Revo', a pun on the word 'revolution'. It featured a nude, liberated woman who fought against the system and all taboos. The comic was inspired by the student demonstrations of May 1968. But since Gal already taught at St. Lucas in Brussels at the time, it was too difficult to draw new episodes on a weekly basis. He therefore stuck to one-panel cartoons, with occasional sequential illustrations. 

Since 1983, Gal is house cartoonist of the weekly magazine Knack. He receives a full page in colour to visualize his opinion about current affairs. In 1990, Knack released the book 'Knack's Cartoon Cabinet. De Hervormers. Politieke Cartoons van Ian & Gal Op Tekst Van De Knack Redactie' (Roularta, 1990), in which political drawings by their cartoonists Gal and Ian (Jan De Graeve) were presented, with commentary from Knack's journalists and columnists. 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 on 17 January 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 for another 18-year uninterrupted run. On 15 September 2022, Gal underwent a heart bypass operation. While it was a success, he had to revalidate for a month before he could publish weekly cartoons in Knack again. 

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, originally published in De Nieuwe, also printed 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.

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. They have tackled both Belgian and international politics, but also addressed royalty, economics, religion, activism, technology, sports, media and crime. He caricatured celebrities from many different countries, regardless how well-known they are in the Belgian (of Western) press. One often has to follow the news with attention in order to recognize everybody. In the same way, some of Gal's cartoons invite the reader to think a little longer about their meaning. 

Another element that distinguishes Gal from his colleagues is his stylistic versatility. Like other political cartoonists, he occasionally makes black-and-white one-panel cartoons or more sequential illustrations. Halfway the 1970s, he started working in a more detailed, elaborate, hand-painted style. From the early 1980s on, he used color. These full-blown painted illustrations have become his trademark. Much like a modern-day artist, Gal frequently experiments with different techniques. Some of his cartoons resemble photo-realistic art, while others are so stylized that they border abstract imagery. He switches easily between cartoony drawings, caricatures, naturalistic illustrations, silhouettes, optical illusions, visualized metaphors and comics. Some of his work parodies iconic paintings, photographs, sculptures or advertisements. 

At times, Gal even left his pencil and paint brush behind, using different formats like sculptures, photo collage, playing cards, board games, puppets, wine labels, wine bottles, oyster shells, ...  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, colonialism, apartheid, the extreme right, pollution,... and other social injustices. In 1981, Gal published 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. 

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. The drawing referenced the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Shabra and Shatila in Lebanon by Phalangist troops on 16-18 September 1982, when both Israeli and U.S. forces didn't intervene. The cartoon led to dozens of angry reader's letters. Some even withdrew their subscription. Interestingly enough, in 1983 the Portuguese cartoonist António made a similar cartoon parody, also based on the Lebanese War and the same Warsaw ghetto photo. 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".

On 19 May 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) "to avoid controversy". 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 2004, three associations without lucrative purpose who finance Vlaams Blok were sentenced for advocating racism. The party changed its name in Vlaams Belang. Gal made a cartoon where he made a link between the new party logo and the initials of the Nazi police force SS. Vlaams Belang sued, but lost their case. 

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

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], '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, worker's rights, communism, media propaganda 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, he made a contribution to 'Tegenaanval' (De Lijn, 1985), an anti-military book advocating the liberation of cartoonist Wim Stevenhagen, who was sentenced for refusing to fulfill his military service for reasons of principle. Along with Benoît, Quirit, Peter De Roy, Jan BosschaertErik MeynenZak and Jan De Maesschalk, Gal was one of the cartoonists who made a graphic contribution to Johan Anthierens' anti-royal book 'Brief Aan Een Postzegel' (Kritak, 1990). 

Gal also illustrated Guy De Pré's book 'De Pré Historie' (BRT Uitgaven, 1991), 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' (Standaard Uitgeverij, 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 Eetera" (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

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 1998 he also made a metal sculpture for the community center Everna in Evere. The work depicted a yellow spring, connected to one of the walls, symbolizing the dynamism of the center. In 2013 the sculpture was removed and placed on a different location in the center. 

Cartoon by Gal
 'Escalation', targeting U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966. 

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 1966 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. In 1988 Gal received the State Prize for Graphic Arts, selected by the Flemish Community, followed in 1994 by the prestigious Ark Prize for Free Speech.

On 27 May 2004, Gal won the Press Cartoon Belgium award for a cartoon depicting the power shortage in the USA on 14-15 August 2003: 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 22 November 2016, Gal was honored with the Cultuurprijs ('Culture Award'), an award for aristic-cultural achievements. 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. On 5 June 2022, a mural painting designed by Gal was inaugurated in the Bakenbos street in Hoeilaart. The same year he also received the Grote Prijs Bephila - Edmond Struyf, an award for artists' entire oeuvre, particularly in the field of stamp design. 

Gal's artwork has frequently been exhibited. His first major expo, 'Politieke Portretten' ('Political Portraits'), was held between 28 June and 17 August 1975 in the International Cultural Center at the Meir in Antwerp. Under the title 'Karikaturen van Gal' ('Caricatures by Gal'), eight caricatures were on display in the St. Lucas Gallery in Brussels, from 9 June until 4 July 1983. The exhibition 'Gal Spuwt' ('Gal Spits') could be seen from 2 to 12 February 1998 at the Free University in Brussels (VUB). Between 6 July and 30 August 2001 his work was exhibited in the Stedelijke Openbare Bibliotheek van Leuven (the City Public Library of Leuven), organized by the cultural foundation Zeppos. His art was also on display in the Sint-Annendael hospital in Diest, between 9 October 2005 and 8 January 2006. 

Between 16 May and 10 July 2013, Gal 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. In 2010-2012, the exhibition 'Gal. Een Halve Eeuw Op Het Scherpst Van De Snee' toured throughout Flanders, being on display in respectively Brussels, Antwerp, Genk, Ghent, Leuven, Turnhout, Neerpelt, Bruges, Ieper, Geraardsbergen, Menen, Hoeilaart, Lokeren and Tongeren. In 2023, the exhibition 'Gal Total' was held in Schaarbeek. 

Gal received praise from veteran cartoonists like Paul Jamin (despite not sharing his ideology), Roland Topor and Wolinski. He was a strong graphic influence on Karl Meersman (whose style is often confused with Gal), Wauter Mannaert and Vejo. He was also admired by painter Luc Tuymans, novelist Hugo Claus and columnist Johan Anthierens. Since 2014, Gal 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. 

In 2022, Gal donated his entire archives to the Free University in Brussels (VUB). Six decades' worth of cartoons and illustrations were documented and described, with help from our Comiclopedia co-writer and editor Kjell Knudde (who also co-maintains Gal's official Facebook page). 

2016 cartoon caricaturing U.S. President Donald Trump. 

Books about Gal
For those interested in Gal's life and work, the books 'Galerie' (De Nieuwe, 1969), 'Kissinger, Carter, Coca & Co - Politieke Tekeningen 1970-1977' (Van Gennep, 1977),  '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, MarecWolinski 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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