If you live in Paris, you’re in luck. For example, being lucky enough to be able to sneak into the Martine Gossieaux gallery right behind the famous Musee d’Orsay to admire works by the artist Jean-Jacques Sempé there at almost any time. Now the illustrator of “little Nick” has died – shortly before his 90th birthday on August 17th.
The Diogenes publishing house in Zurich recognized Sempé’s works as “masterpieces of humour”. In them he showed people their weaknesses and those of the world in a “tenderly ironic way”.
To the end, Sempé was grateful for the public recognition: “I would never have believed that one day someone would buy my things to have at home,” he once confessed in an interview with the magazine of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. ; “that blows my mind, even after all these years.”
It is this almost childlike joy about the coincidences of life that is also found in Sempé’s drawings; paired with a touch of melancholy and a fine pinch of humour.
This triad was probably put into his cradle. Born in Bordeaux in 1932, his mother immediately scooped a prize: for the “most beautiful baby” in the city, the artist recalled in his 2012 volume “Children”. “A beautiful baby, that was something abominable in those days: a fat child pumped full of overfat milk. The more hideous and misshapen a baby was, the more beautiful it was.”
“My childhood was anything but funny”
Little good was heard from Sempé in the years that followed. Among other things, the resounding slaps in the face from his mother stuck with him; from the stepfather, who sold pies, fish and “pickle jars” as a grocer, the quarrels with the mother when he came home slightly drunk after a successful business day.
“My childhood was really anything but funny,” says the artist. “That’s certainly the reason why I love the cheerful.” And maybe also because in many of his drawings children are the focus – and the world of adults is often gray and dreary.
This is particularly evident in “Little Nick”, Sempé’s most well-known character. The timelessly beautiful anecdotes about a schoolboy and his clique in France in the 1950s and 60s also have a large fan base in Germany, not least thanks to the ingenious translation by Hans Georg Lenzen. Sempé’s pictures include the stories by Asterix author René Goscinny. How it all came about is again one of those lucky coincidences that played into the artist’s hands.
Sempé first conceived the initially nameless character for a magazine in Belgium, at that time the Mecca of all cartoonists and comic artists. The editor-in-chief of the paper wanted to give the child a name. Shortly before the next appointment with the man, according to Sempé, “a bus passed me advertising a wine called Nicolas – and, boom! I had a name for the little one”.
A little later Goscinny joined, who created whole stories from the planned comic strips with “Little Nick”.
“Rest in peace and send us the rain from above…”
According to Sempé, the stories reflect a kind of ideal. “The children scuffle in ‘Little Nick’, but they don’t hurt each other.” Instead, they have a lot of fun on vacation, on the sports field or playing pranks at school. Of course, since 1950, when he published his first drawings, a wealth of other works have emerged. Cover photos for the US magazine “New Yorker” are among them, drawings for numerous French print media or an illustrated book about musicians.
Two years ago, Sempé published the illustrated book “Garder le cap” (German title: “Hin und weg”), a kind of retrospective of his caricatures for “Paris Match”. In an interview with the magazine published on the subject, the illustrator reported on a conversation with a therapist who urgently advised him to finally retire. “She told me to rest and only work when I feel like it. And it turns out I never felt like working.”
According to Diogenes, Sempé died in his holiday resort. His figures and his keen powers of observation, combined with a “fantastic sense of comedy”, would have made the illustrator one of the greatest contemporary French draftsmen for over 70 years.
French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said: “Sempé, that was the drawing, that was the text. It was the smile and the poetry. Sometimes he had tears in his eyes from laughter, tonight they are tears of emotion,” Borne wrote on Twitter. Numerous other politicians also reacted emotionally to Sempé’s death.
The association of the French fire brigade, which is currently fighting devastating forest fires in various parts of the country, combined this with a specific request to Sempé. “Rest in peace and send us the rain from up there…” tweeted the fire brigade association on Thursday evening. (KNA, with dpa)