Archives - Fine Art: Page 11
Author: paul carson (Sat Nov 18, 2006 12:24 pm)
Title: fine arts
The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé is a little like Brigitte Bardot or Charles Aznavour. He’s a national institution who has acquired an almost universal appeal by remaining quintessentially French. 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. Dwarfed by their surroundings, his figures — smallish men, balding, a little portly, with big noses and tidy little mustaches, their double-chinned, nicely coiffed wives in polka-dot frocks — are Gallic Everymen, dignified and put upon at the same time, in the way that only French people can be. They nevertheless speak to the international human plight: the Thurberian power struggle between men and women, the daily need to keep up appearances, the unending cycle of tiny victories and middle-size defeats.
Apartment living in Paris proves just as intrusive as it can be in New York.
Mr. Sempé, now 74, has been drawing this way since the early ’50s. Some of his newer cartoons have timely references. There are several involving cellphones, for example, and one, a dig at the doping scandals always hovering over the Tour de France, showing a little old lady shooting up before pedaling her bike along a steep country road. But most of his work is timeless, set in a mythical and changeless present, and even an expert would have a hard time distinguishing one decade’s drawing from the next.
Phaidon Press, normally a publisher of high-end art books, has recently embarked on an ambitious program of reissuing, or in many cases publishing in English for the first time, much of Mr. Sempé’s extensive oeuvre. The project came about more or less by accident when the company’s owner, Richard Schlagman, attended the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years ago, hoping to acquire from the French publisher Denoël the rights to a book about the English artists Gilbert and George. But his eye kept wandering, he said recently, to some images at the back of the booth. They were Sempé drawings, and though Mr. Schlagman barely knew who the artist was, he wound up making an offer for virtually his life’s work.
This month Phaidon is bringing out “Martin Pebble,” a children’s picture book; “Nicholas Again,” one of a series of children’s novels Mr. Sempé illustrated for René Goscinny, who later created Astérix; “Monsieur Lambert,” a 1965 graphic novel set entirely at a little bistro called Chez Picard, where the same men gather every day to dream and to lie about the three great French themes of sex, politics and soccer; and four volumes of collected cartoons. Dating from 1962, 1963, 1999 and 2003, these collections in effect bookend Mr. Sempé’s career, and, taken sequentially, their titles add up to a lyrical little précis of the Sempé way of looking at things: “Nothing Is Simple,” “Everything Is Complicated,”
Ruddy and white-haired, Mr. Sempé is more vigorous than his cartoon alter egos. He is also more intrepid about traveling, and was recently in New York, a city he loves to visit, and draw, precisely because it is so different from Paris.
“Paris is kind of gray,” he said, speaking both in English and in French. “Here the light is stronger, and everything is more colorful.” The people were different too, he added. There were more of them, and they were much more various. “The most interesting thing is just to watch the people in the street,” he said. “Nothing is more fun.”
Taking out a little card, he drew, from left to right, three progressively larger circles connected by horizontal lines. They represented three stages of his life, he explained: Bordeaux, where he was born; Paris, where he moved in the ’50s; and New York, where he realized a lifelong dream in the late ’70s, when he began to publish in The New Yorker, which continues to feature his covers and drawings.
Pointing to the Paris circle, he said: “In the beginning I felt much more alone in Paris than in New York. The weight of the French bourgeoisie weighs very heavily, and makes it hard to enter into Parisian society. Here it’s very different. In Paris I always felt guilty looking for work, but here people understand that that’s just part of life.”
Mr. Sempé, it turns out, was the classic late bloomer. He explained that he was expelled from school, though he was merely distrait, not méchant — distractable and undisciplined, that is, but not mean or bad. He took exams for the post office, a bank and the railroad, and after failing them all, wound up selling tooth powder from door to door in the countryside.
“It’s as much your job as mine to go and ring that bell!”
In 1950 he lied about his age and enlisted in the army. “That was the only place that would give me a job and a bed,” he explained. But there, too, his career was checkered. He was initially thrown in the brig for falsifying his papers, and on resuming duty was sometimes reprimanded for drawing when he was supposed to be standing watch.
Upon being discharged, he moved to Paris and scrounged around, trying to sell cartoons to the newspapers. His first breakthrough was the chance to work with Goscinny, but the decisive influence upon him was some copies of The New Yorker he happened to see around this time. “All of them, I don’t want to leave anyone out,” he said. “Charles Addams. Saul Steinberg. James Thurber. They made such an impression on me that I saw only three or four copies and then decided never to look at the magazine again. They were too great.”
Asked to describe the evolution of his drawing, Mr. Sempé made a roller-coaster motion with his hand, but in fact he hit upon his distinctive style early on — the delicate, spidery line; the long perspectives; the eloquent use of white space and of gray washes — and stuck with it. And he has almost unintentionally became a kind of social chronicler, though more wistful tshan critical. He will never again write a book like “Monsieur Lambert,” he said, “because people now say things that are even more stupid, but they use even bigger words, and the humor in that always develops into satire. It makes me sad.”
These days, he added, he spends more time at his desk in Montparnasse than he does strolling the streets, and he seldom knows what he’s going to draw until he sits down. “It’s not about intelligence,” he said. “It’s about endurance.”
grow and be kind