Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Caustic Heyday

« When I grow up I would like to be an artist in France. » — Keith Haring

The other day, while weighing the idea of producing this post, I asked my wife: “Is Sempé too obvious a choice?”, to which she wisely replied: “To whom?”. To add another few grammes of perspective, I’m reminded of how, a decade-or-so ago, I was helping out a friend by manning his business phones while he took a vacation. One caller identified herself as Mme Sempé. I immediately asked whether she was related to the cartoonist. She was (they’re second cousins), but rather shockingly, this was the first time anyone had ever brought up the subject with her. Okay, so not so obvious after all.

If you only know Jean-Jacques Sempé‘s work through his cover illustrations for The New Yorker, well, you’ve missed his finest. Sempé (born August 17, 1932, in Bordeaux, France) was recruited in the late 70s, in the twilight of editor William Shawn‘s tenure (1952-87) with the magazine. To be quite frank, Sempé’s New Yorker work is his weakest, comprising almost invariably mawkish scenes of the dying arts: little girls practicing scales at grand pianos, ballet rehearsals and grand operas. And the work has only grown more anachronistic and sentimental with time; I’d say he’s the least compelling cover artist currently working for the magazine, with the exception of art director Françoise Mouly‘s little chouchou, the stiff and bland Adrian Tomine, he of the lifeless line and emetic palette. Ahem.

But there was a time…

In 1968, a decade-and-a-half into Sempé’s career, ever-lucid Belgian writer and historian Jacques Sternberg perceptively summed up the artist’s appeal:

« But Sempé’s humour has earned the favour of a very wide audience. Without a doubt because he’s able to observe with a playful — but rarely sadistic — eye the drawbacks and peculiarities of our daily lives, and that his reader feels — mistakenly — reassured by this vision.

Sempé has, in fact, a way with an impressive setting, with meticulous detail, of the mise en scène that sugarcoats the bitter pill and of the lyrical flight that dampens the ferocity of the content. The miracle occurs as if by magic: Sempé, who is rather scathing, seduces rather than worries his readers. »

A cartoon that first saw print in the pages of Ici Paris in 1958.
This cartoon appeared in France Dimanche, circa 1957.
Another one that ran in France Dimanche in 1957.
The signs say, from left to right: “They’re mocking us“; “More demagoguery“; “Freedom First!“; “End the abuse“, “Down with…” and… “We have found this glove“.
From France Dimanche (1957). This one strikes close to home for me. Makes me think of the sort of barbarians always seeking to ‘improve upon’ nature. A passage from friendly gadfly and crime writer Carl Hiassen‘s brilliantly scathing polemic, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (1998) comes to mind:

« Disney is so good at being good that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it’s unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness. Imagine promoting a universe in which raw Nature doesn’t fit because it doesn’t measure up; isn’t safe enough, accessible enough, predictable enough, even beautiful enough for company standards. Disney isn’t in the business of exploiting Nature so much as striving to improve upon it, constantly fine-tuning God’s work.

Lakes, for instance. Florida’s heartland is dappled with lovely tree-lined lakes, but the waters are often tea-colored from cypress bark. For postcard purposes, tea-colored water was deemed unsuitable for Disney World’s centerpiece, Bay Lake, so in the early 1970s Team Rodent sprang into action—yanking out many of the cypresses, draining the lake, scraping out the bottom muck, replacing it with imported sand, then refilling the crater. All this was done to make the water bluish and therefore more inviting to tourists. For good measure, Disney even added beaches.» [ read it here ]
Naturally, I don’t dislike *all* of his New Yorker covers. This one, from the November 24, 1997 issue, is a peach.

-RG