Remembering Sempé

E-mail from Bonnie Bendon Campbell this morning, saying that she was about to give a talk on “the great illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé, who died last year”, and then in her Facebook feed “Un Sempé par jour” her most favorite of his cartoons popped up, so she shared it with me. I had intended to write at some length on Sempé after he died (alas, I hadn’t posted about him while he still lived), but much of 2022 was a disaster in my life, and a great many substantial projects didn’t get finished. So here I am.

Starting with the clown-makeup cartoon:

(#1) ‘I already told you to take your makeup off before you scold them!’ (not to mention the nose, the shoes, …)

The New Yorker‘s affectionate farewell. In its entirety:

Image #2 is the headers from the magazine, and #3 is the Sempé cover from the 3/28/94 issue.

The New York Times obit, “Jean-Jacques Sempé, Cartoonist of Droll Whimsy, Dies at 89: Beloved in France and popular around the world, he drew more than 100 covers for The New Yorker in an association that began in 1978” by Robert D. McFadden on-line on 8/11/22 (in print on 8/13/22 with the headline “Jean-Jacques Sempé, Beloved Cartoonist of Droll Whimsy, Dies at 89”), which I’ve edited to focus on McFadden’s detailed appreciation of Sempé’s work:

Jean-Jacques Sempé, the French cartoonist known in America for children’s book illustrations and for covers for The New Yorker portraying tiny, gentle people with big noses at poignant moments, often dwarfed by monumental backgrounds, died on Thursday. He was 89.

…In a nighttime panorama of sleeping city skyscrapers, Sempé illuminated a ballerina in a window. On the soaring span of the Brooklyn Bridge, a lone Sempé bicycle rider churned bravely. And before a large blackboard choked with Einstein calculations, his scruffy little genius soft-boiled an egg.

(#4) The bicyclist on the bridge (for the 12/4/00 issue)

It was timeless storytelling without words, a kind of pictorial haiku, the droll whimsies of an illustrator who never attended art school but who, for a half-century at the drawing board, had bypassed life’s meanspirited realities for a mythical world of mischievous schoolboys, daydreamers, nosy neighbors, holidaymakers and swooning lovers.

Beloved in France, popular around the world and one of America’s favorite cartoonists, Sempé drew more than 100 covers for The New Yorker in an association that began in 1978. His cartoons also appeared in other magazines and newspapers and were collected in dozens of anthologies.

And in a collaboration with the writer René Goscinny begun in 1959, he illustrated a series of children’s books based on the escapades of Le Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas), a nostalgic version of postwar French childhood. Their first volume was an overnight success, then came four sequels, and in time the series became an international classic, reprinted in France, the United States and many other countries. His subjects were office workers, housewives, delicate little girls, frustrated commuters, pretentious intellectuals, musicians, roller skaters and bike riders, whom he adored because he was one of them. His men were likely to be portly and balding, with tidy mustaches and sometimes wearing berets; the women were often double-chinned matrons in polka-dot frocks.

“He’s a national institution who has acquired an almost universal appeal by remaining quintessentially French,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times in 2006. “His precise, elegant drawings are often set in a Paris that even Parisians dream of: a city of mansard roofs, high windows and wrought-iron balconies, where all the cars still look like Deux Chevaux or 1950s Citroëns.”

Each New Yorker cover was like a scene from a larger story, and Sempé’s enormous backdrops exaggerated the effect. On Oct. 24, 2005, it was a tiny dancer in a tutu, waiting to be called while sitting on a bench under the statue of a great ballerina in a gigantic performing space. On Nov. 14, 2011, it was a small boy with a violin case, looking in at a studio of towering basses, huge drums and a menacing maestro pounding a grand piano.

(#5) The violin boy (of 11/14/11)

On the gentler side were the Sempé cats. One luxuriated on a fluffy bedspread by a picture window overlooking Manhattan; another perched on a banister newel post, master of his empty household. One multi-panel Sempé cartoon showed a single autumn leaf spiraling to the ground from a tree, and a hand throwing it over into another yard.

(#6) The banister cat (for the 12/8/80 issue)

He offered touches of modernity — a cellphone or a computer — but bicycles and roller skates more often kept his draxxwings stubbornly in a retro age, and the worlds of classical music and the performing arts lent timelessness to his work. Any concertgoer could recognize the symptoms.

Spoofing orchestral performers’ habitual use of the arm wave to deflect credit to others onstage as an appreciative audience roars, Sempé portrayed an entire orchestra in a daisy chain of arm-waving that began with the conductor and pianist, wound back through the ranks of strings and horns, and finally ended far in the rear, where a small percussionist beamed and bowed.

With the caption “C’est La Vie!” he drew four couples in separate boats on a fishing vacation — the men in the bows facing the points of the compass with their lines out; the women gossiping in the sterns, which were lashed together.

To illustrate the pride of the French housewife dedicated to cleanliness, Sempé drew madame polishing the tracks of a railroad line that ran just outside her front gate.

For sheer joy, he drew a girl skipping rope on a tenement roof with the great city rising behind her like an audience of the future.

And for sheer glad-to-be-alive happiness, there was Sempé’s man in the dunes, alone at the beachfront at the end of a perfect September day, tipping his hat at the incoming Atlantic.

(#7) The man in the dunes (for the 9/7/81 issue)


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