Death of Sempé: tribute to the master of humorous drawing

There is a fire very close to his native town, and it has just gone out Jean-Jacques Sempé, a few hundred kilometers away.

Death of Sempé: tribute to the master of humorous drawing

There is a fire very close to his native town, and it has just gone out Jean-Jacques Sempé, a few hundred kilometers away. Perhaps the prince of discrepancy and irony is already sketching this image, from the top of the paradise of cartoonists. End clap, therefore, for this amused observer of our little failings and our excessive dreams.

Inconsolable and cheerful, Sempé, born in Bordeaux in 1932, "in a calamitous family" as he told his friend Marc Lecarpentier (Childhood, 2011, and Sempé. Route of a humorous designer, 2019, Ed. Martine Gossieaux), moved to Paris at the age of 17, will have been until she was 89. The one who said he became a designer "by chance and by necessity" leaves us Le Petit Nicolas, a character in his own right of our national heritage, thousands of drawings, and thousands of smiles on his lips. He said he didn't like comics or cartoons, so if he wasn't a cyclist (as a young man in Bordeaux, he delivered samples by bike for a wine broker) or a jazz musician ( Duke Ellington, Count Basie were his first idols), he chose humorous drawing, a difficult path as the field of investigation is infinite. His subject ? Neither the politicians nor the people, but the people of the street, so-called ordinary, distracted children, moving little ladies, serious gentlemen, and then suburban houses, highways, sprawling cities, New York... And hours and hours of work.

In an interview he granted us in December 1993 on the occasion of the release of his album Insondables Mysteries, he confided to us that it took a month and a half to finalize the cover: "And yet, it's simple, a cat who looks out of the window of a library. I successively placed the window a little further to the right, then a little further to the left: I drew the whole thing seen from above, then from below, he explained. And finally, when everything was successful, the cat was missed. And believe me, it is very unpleasant to tear up his drawings". The touch of the master... But before achieving success, Sempé experienced ten lean years. "I was going to offer my services everywhere. As soon as there was the slightest cabochon - the cabochon is a small drawing - the slightest letter to write, I took it. I did everything." Childhood, famine, military service, so many years that, modest and reluctant to make people cry in the cottages, the Bordelais preferred not to mention.

It was in 1951 that he published his first works in Sud-Ouest, signed DRO (from the English to draw, "to draw") and paid for the equivalent of 1 euro each. Then came, at the end of the 1950s, the character of Petit Nicolas, invented for the Belgian newspaper Le Moustique and published in Sud-Ouest Dimanche, Elle and Pilote, between 1959 and 1965 before being published by Denoël. Jean-Jacques Sempé was then 27 years old and René Goscinny, 33 years old. Since then, nostalgia is still what it was, and the adventures of the most rowdy schoolboy in France, long before Titeuf, from Zep, have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, translated in more of thirty languages, in particular in Breton, Latin, Yiddish, Arabic and... Maghrebian Arabic (for the latter, in a double version, with on the left, the Arabic script and, on the right, a phonetic transcription in Latin script inspired by the short stories technologies). Images of an ideal France of the Glorious Thirties, of the time of friends and of the four Thursdays - note, for fans, that all of the 222 stories of Petit Nicolas, i.e. 2000 pages signed Goscinny and 700 drawings by Sempé, are brought together in a box published by Imav editions.

The press cartoonist took off in 1957. Paris Match, headed by Roger Thérond, fond of the genre, opened its columns to him. At the same time, he tries his hand at gouache and watercolor and works for several pharmaceutical laboratories: "All the designers dreamed of this type of work, which was much better paid than the drawings in the newspapers..." Punch, l he English satirical weekly, but also Le Nouveau Candide soon had the good taste to appeal to the caustic trait of this witness of our time, while the first albums appeared: Rien n'est simple, Monsieur Lambert, Par avion, Saint-Tropez ... Then it's L'Express, for which Sempé observed "Modern Life" for ten years. The weekly will also pay tribute to him next year to celebrate his 70th birthday in his company. On August 17, 1978, his 46th birthday, the French cartoonist began a fruitful collaboration with the chic New Yorker. There he meets the designers he had admired so much when he was young, Steinberg, Adams, Koran... His pencil stroke does wonders there.

In France, as an informed sociologist, he never ceased, for decades, with his benevolent irony, to stigmatize the snobs and to take a tender look at the "little people" and their too big dreams. Sociologist, the word came spontaneously. He hated him, retorting: "And Balzac, what was he? If I am a sociologist, Balzac and Proust, what were they? They were geniuses, they were the equals of God." Sempé was perhaps not the equal of God, but we are certainly his apostles.

Drawing by Sempé reproduced on the cover of the "New Yorker", 2004.


Jean-Jacques Sempé worked for almost ten years with L'Express. A tribute will be paid to him in our next issue, on newsstands August 18.

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