All journalists know it: interviewing Sempé was an impossible mission. The designer, who died on Thursday August 11 at the age of 89, often answered with a word, a devastating smile, an incredibly blue eye widening, fortunately punctuated from time to time by a wonderful formula. On the occasion of a retrospective which presented many of his unpublished drawings in Rueil-Malmaison, L'Express had tried the exercise in his studio in Montparnasse.
L'Express: How does it feel to have your retrospective?
Do you remember your beginnings as a designer?
Yes, I went to show my first drawings to Chaval, whom I admired madly. He gave me one piece of advice: "Do something else, you don't make a living as a press comedian! Find a job that's a little more stable!" Since I couldn't find it, I continued to draw.
And why are you still continuing?
But, dear friend, because it is so and it cannot be otherwise.
Are there things you can't draw?
Amount ! I was talking about it again recently with my friend Leonardo. He succeeds in everything. He said to me kindly: "Be stubborn!" So, I'm stubborn...
Jean-Jacques Sempé, in his studio, in Paris, in 2015 (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)
Stéphane de Satukin/AFP
How are your drawings born?
They say you mostly draw happy people...
I would have liked to draw only happy people! When I observe people in the street, I see them going to work, they are tired, lost in the middle of the crowd, I find them very courageous and there is something almost exciting there. I don't want to draw prisons.
You've done over 100 covers for The New Yorker. Is it pride?
Let's say that I'm quite happy with my courage. It cost me so much effort, I was so afraid of ridicule. You know, drawing is like pastry cream, we are always afraid of missing out. And then, I had to get into watercolors, for them... But I love New York so much, what a marvel, this city!
Aren't you afraid that the Internet will make press cartoons disappear?
It was said that the radio would kill the concerts and it was not the case. I believe that reading, music and architecture will always exist.
Drawing published in Paris Match in 1958.
Are you nostalgic?
I'm nostalgic for the time when people I loved still lived. My friend René Goscinny, with whom I started very young, Duke Ellington, whom I adored... One day, I was waiting for Eddie Barclay, at his home, in the dark, strumming on a keyboard. Suddenly, a man came up behind me, sat down and said, "It's not bad. I'm doing the left hand, do the right!" It was Duke Ellington.
There's always a piano in your studio, by the way...
Every week, I take a lesson with a jazz pianist. I am terrified, distraught, when he arrives. But I know them, my musician friends, they're up there, in the sky, they're having fun. So, if I don't make progress, I won't be able to have fun with them...
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.