Sempé, the French artist whose insightful cameos of the complexity of life have regularly adorned covers of The New Yorker magazine over the past 30 years, is the unassuming star of an exhibition that runs until December 6 in the lakeside city of Morges. One hundred original drawings from 1962 to the present day tell the story of an artist whose legendary shyness inspires instantly recognizable characters delicately outlined against the landscapes of their lives.

“What I love about humoristic drawings is that you can say things with subtlety,” says Jean-Jacques Sempé about his craft. “It’s actually a way of talking about yourself without giving the impression that you are doing so,” he adds.

The exhibition dedicated to Sempé at the Alexis Forel Museum in Morges serves to remind us that original drawings are invariably much larger in real life than when they are published, and often even more charming. The 100 cartoons on display cover almost half a century of Sempe’s work and allow us to admire close-up the infinitesimal detail for which he is known.
Drawings on show are taken from the 30 some books that Sempé has published since 1962. We discover with astonishment how little his style has changed over the years.

“This is not the first time that we have presented illustrations in their original form,” indicates Yvan Schwab, director of the Forel Museum, where the exhibition runs until the beginning of December. Other renowned illustrators, such as Etienne Delessert and George Lemoine, have also been featured.

“It is important to show the originals, because publications rarely do them justice. In my opinion, they really deserve their place in a museum,” stresses Schwab.

Born in Bordeaux 77 years ago, Sempé, one of the world’s best-loved cartoonists, never even went to art school. In fact, he never finished school at all and enrolled in the army because, he says, he could not get into the post office, the railroad or a bank. He arrived in Paris with a portfolio of drawings under his arm and took them around to all the magazines.

Paris Match, Punch and L’Express were the first to publish his little figurines lost in their finely drawn environments. Sempé’s remarkable ability to be funny without ever being mean introduced gentleness into humour, something that post-war France was evidently ready for.

He says of his first contacts with The New Yorker some years later that it was “like a Hollywood dream come true.”
“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,” he once said in an interview with the New York Times.

But Sempé went on to make more than 90 covers for the magazine, where his use of colour is more pronounced than in the delicate water-coloured vignettes that appear in his books and where his understanding of how people live in the shadow of The Big Apple never ceases to enchant.

Martine Gossieaux, owner of the eponymous gallery in Paris that represents the artist, is preparing a book that will include all The New Yorker covers to date as well as some original drawings. It will be entitled Sempé and New York.

The exhibition in Morges, which Gossieaux also put together, has already been shown in Hong-Kong, Beijing, Basel and Madrid and will tour widely in France next year.

It offers an opportunity to appreciate the work of an artist whose work rises above cultural and generational divides and makes us all smile.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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