Jean-Jacques Sempé was an unparalleled observer of the human situation


At the sting of the big sea, his garments left in a pile, his arms hugging his shivering physique, a frail, tiny determine puzzled whether or not to make the leap. In an immense plain, below an enormous black cloud, a girl in a sunhat furiously pedalled her bicycle, with its basket of treasured greens, in direction of some distant dwelling. Amid an infinity of fir bushes two ant-size cyclists nearly met, however their paths diverged earlier than contact. In a panorama of rampaging lushness and superb views a pipe-smoking painter labored at his easel. His human topic, insignificant within the lengthy grass, known as “Bear in mind to not neglect me!”

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In cityscapes—the tall gray buildings and mansard roofs of Paris, the massed skyscrapers of New York—the proportions had been the identical. Right here the human ants usually moved in crowds, by way of the wet streets, into opulent live performance halls, in direction of political rallies, often in the identical route. But within the metropolis, too, they broke away and have become solitary among the many huge towers. On a flat roof, a little bit lady jumped a skipping rope. In a single lit window, a coach coaxed a tiger by way of a hoop. From one balcony, a pair leaned out dangerously to catch the crescent moon by way of a canyon of excessive partitions. In an immense lamplit colonnade, a furtive tuba-player smoked behind a column.

Photos like these, in ink and wash or mild watercolour, featured for many years in dozens of French magazines, in Britain’s Punch and on the covers of the New Yorker. They crammed books that bought within the thousands and thousands. His little figures, dealing with the world, made Jean-Jacques Sempé internationally well-known. However why, he puzzled, did people assume they had been huge? They had been tiny, little scraps of issues. Their lives had been a large number, his personal particularly. He had been introduced up petit-bourgeois and poor in south-west France, by no means realizing his actual father, feeling due to this fact he was constructed on nothing. His foster mother and father nearly killed him, and his stepfather—when his gross sales of canned anchovies went properly—would come dwelling drunk and beat him. He was expelled from college at 14 for being distrait, too distractable. When he seemed for work, everybody rejected him.

His tiny figures had been haunted by notions of greatness. Beneath an unlimited statue to music, in an overgrown park, a weary man trudged with a violin. Earlier than a colossal monument to some historic hero wrestling a stallion, a glum businessman waited for the crossing mild to alter. Backstage, amongst hovering fly-towers, half a dozen little one ballerinas lined up nervously to go on. Goals of what they may do had been limitless, however what may befall in the event that they tried? His personal ambitions had been, first, to be an excellent jazz pianist like Duke Ellington. He had even met him as soon as, in Saint Tropez, and so they had banged out “Satin Doll” for just a few bars. He nonetheless dreamed of reprising that, duelling with the Duke. A fair bolder hope had been to be centre ahead within the French nationwide group. However by some conspiracy he had not been known as.

In default of greatness, his little figures did no matter they might. Within the midst of one in all his exuberant forests, a pair with a caravan laid out a backyard and mowed a garden. A middle-aged girl in a housecoat polished the railway tracks that ran previous her cottage. One plump, balding husband, dwelling from work, serenaded his spouse with a cello; one other, rising from the supper desk, took a bow within the daylight that streamed by way of the window. In a backyard shed, a mousy little man solid a knight’s shining sword.

As for him, he turned an artist. It was not straightforward. In his youth he had solely doodled, nothing critical. He by no means drew from life, solely from his head, which contained all the pieces obligatory. When he began to promote drawings for a dwelling, a final resort, he got here throughout copies of the New Yorker with drawings by Saul Steinberg and James Thurber. He determined they had been simply too nice, little dreaming that in 1978 he would dare to ask to do the identical. However on the New Yorker, as elsewhere, he felt he did nothing exceptional. Although he teased philosophers with the titles of his collections (“Nothing is Easy”, “All the pieces is Sophisticated”, “Unfathomable Mysteries”), he simply drew the world as he noticed it, striving for a brand new thought each day. He crammed huge sheets and canvases with the smallest particulars of grass, birds, mouldings, chandelier drops, creating a complete world for a single picture which regularly required no phrases.

That world was old school, extra attention-grabbing than the trendy one. On his rural roads there have been no automobiles. Ladies stayed round the home; males placed on hats and went to work, or sat in neighbourhood bistros, among the many half-net curtains and bentwood chairs, speaking politics and soccer. His cartoon-novel, “Monsieur Lambert”, was set fully there. He didn’t care to replace himself. Nor would he do satire or mockery, solely humour of the type that buddies and colleagues indulged in. The gently nudging type. How may he mock, when in each picture he was drawing his personal vulnerability?

The hero of “Le Petit Nicolas”, a collection of books for kids created with René Goscinny in 1959, additionally seemed weak and small. However Nicolas precipitated chaos on all sides together with his daydreams and his pranks. He lay on his mattress together with his soccer, scheming, surrounded by toy automobiles and the discarded pages of his classes. He was scolded in school, whereas behind the grasp’s again his buddies leered and laughed. Off diving boards he jumped cheerfully into nothingness, holding his nostril for luck. Little Nicolas had the happy-go-lucky childhood he himself by no means had. That made his personal a bit simpler to take.

Childlike instincts helped usually. A middle-aged businessman kicked up fallen leaves in a park; an workplace employee, returning dwelling, flicked the pedal of a drum package. One other, smiling blissfully, rocked on a playground swing to ponder the sundown. A plutocrat sat splashing in his villa’s non-public pool. Cyclists, the happiest of beings, raced down tracks collectively, introduced cities alive with their colors and coasted solo above gridlocked visitors over the Brooklyn Bridge. On the fringe of the big sea, on an enormous seaside, a tiny determine in pink shorts did a handstand for sheer pleasure.

This text appeared within the Obituary part of the print version below the headline “The enjoyment of small issues”

20220820 DE US - Jean-Jacques Sempé was an unparalleled observer of the human situation

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