Paris pays homage to its biggest fan, Sempe

AP News
Posted: Oct 20, 2011 7:46 AM
Paris pays homage to its biggest fan, Sempe

For Jean-Jacques Sempe, Paris is the indisputable center of the world.

Even when the celebrated illustrator's gently ironic gaze settles on someplace other than the French capital, Sempe sees his subject from a quintessentially Parisian perspective.

Now, the City of Light is paying homage to the 79-year-old illustrator, with an exhaustive, exuberant exhibition at Paris City Hall that traces his career from his early teenage doodlings to his recent masterful covers for the New Yorker magazine.

It's a long and delightful journey: The French capital's bustling streets, cafes and bourgeois drawing rooms have inspired his India ink drawings for more than half a century.

"Sempe, un peu de Paris et d'ailleurs," or "Sempe, a Bit of Paris and Elsewhere," is a blockbuster best-of exhibit, bringing together hundreds of the newspaper and magazine drawings and book illustrations that have made him a cultural institution in France.

The son of a traveling salesman from the southwestern port city of Bordeaux, Sempe first came to the French capital as a young man as part of his military service.

"It was the dream of my life to come to Paris," Sempe told The Associated Press in an interview. "The dream of my life."

More than 50 years later, the sense of wide-eyed wonder with which Sempe regards his adoptive city is still palpable in his work.

Peopled by the fashionable haute bourgeoisie of its grand neighborhoods, the mustachioed workers of its more popular districts and children and dogs in perpetual motion, Sempe's Paris is at once funny and touching.

Sempe's undying adoration of the city elevates even the most mundane everyday scenes into the realm of art: A packed bus crossing a bridge over the Seine River at dusk; the Luxembourg Gardens, alive with children, tennis players, bikers, readers and dreamers on the first day of spring; a man in a smart suit standing at the tip of the Ile de la Cite, looking out over the Seine as Notre Dame looms in the distance.

His style varies wildly: Sempe is a master both of sparse, captionless drawings where a few simple lines speak volumes, as well as riotous, over-the-top scenes where every square centimeter (inch) is alive and captions are hundreds of words long. Still, what the French call "patte" _ that elusive quality that makes an artist's work instantly identifiable _ was always there, from the earliest sketch in the show, a 1949 doodling on the back of an envelope.

The apparent effortlessness of Sempe's style belies the agonizing, painstaking, almost torturous work that goes into each drawing.

"It takes me a very long time, weeks or even months for me to get it right," said Sempe. "You get thinking about something that little by little starts taking shape in your mind."

But it can take lots of failed drafts to get it right: Sempe has said he often has to sketch the same scene up to 50 times to get it spot-on.

Many of the drawings feel like they'd been done staring out the window of Sempe's Left Bank apartment _ particularly the intricately drawn cityscapes, where leafy trees and elegant Haussman buildings loom large over the cast of minute figures. But Sempe said he never works from live scenes, or from photos.

"It's all in my head. I work at a desk inside my apartment. All I have in front of me is a blank sheet of paper," he said, taking a deep drag on his cigarette.

Sempe's early career working for French publications _ from the hometown Sud-Ouest Dimanche newspaper to L'Express newsweekly and Paris Match gossip magazine _ helped him conquer his fear of the blank page. But it was his "Le Petit Nicolas" series of children's books that propelled Sempe to stardom in France.

A collaboration with Rene Goscinny _ author of the mythic "Asterix and Obelix" cartoon series _ the tales of a mischievous but goodhearted schoolboy named Nicolas remain classics more than fifty years after they were first published. The exhibit includes a section of the original India ink illustrations for the book.

But it was his work for the New Yorker that won Sempe international acclaim. In eyepopping watercolors, his quirky covers are quietly amusing reflections on life's simple pleasures.

Sempe first visited the Big Apple in 1965, spending 15 days there as a tourist.

It would be more than a decade until he made his 1978 debut with the New Yorker _ which he calls "an incredible magazine where all the best illustrators worked."

"New York was so strange, it was another world," said Sempe.

New York was the only world, in fact, to be able to rival Paris' magnetic pull on him. Sempe returned again and again, capturing the city through his uniquely French lens.

A pen and ink drawing of a New Yorkers lunching on the go as they work might strike the average Manhattanite as banal, but in Paris, where lunches are meant to drag on for hours and never involve anything as pedestrian as office work, the scene is fraught with irony.

Despite its unequivocal French-ness, Sempe's work touches a universal nerve, portraying culture-crossing human follies and neuroses that are sure to make you laugh _ whether or not your French is strong enough to fully parse out the captions.

The exhibition opens on Friday and runs at Paris' Hotel de Ville through Feb. 11.