Sempé, an immense graphic heritage

Two months after his death, Jean-Jacques Sempé seems more present than ever in cultural news. A new album, Sempe in America (1), was released in bookstores. 150,000 spectators have already gone to see The little Nicolas. What are we waiting for to be happy? in the cinema, a faithful tribute to the fine and light line of the designer. And in Belgium, near Brussels, the Folon Foundation has doubled its attendance since the opening, at the beginning of October, of the very fine exhibition devoted to the French artist (see below).

So many proofs of Sempé’s aura with the general public, but also of the imprint he left on the graphic arts. Witness the many drawn tributes that were paid to him by his colleagues after his death. However, he has no obvious heirs in the profession. He himself did not know about it and was surprised that so many artists claim their work. Many spiritual sons and daughters, fed on his albums in their childhood.

“His place is hugeconfirms Thomas Ragon, collection director at Dargaud. He made the connection between the Anglo-Saxon humorous drawing of the 1950s and the great illustration of the end of the 20th century with the revival of New Yorker, magazine which featured him extensively on the cover. If he still fascinates designers so much, it is because his style appears very light, whereas it is the fruit of colossal work. However, this tension never shows through. »

“Purifying takes time! »

This paradox is at the heart of the work of Aude Picault, whose last album, Amalia (2022), sketches with accuracy, tenderness and humor the daily life of an active woman of the 2020s. All with a flexible and deceptively simple line. “Like Sempé, who was a huge hard worker, I have a tendency laborious. I have always tried to eliminate as many lines as possible, while making sure to remain readable. Purging takes time! »

In her early days, Aude Picault regularly returned to the master’s albums to “Find staging solutions”. “His perspective lines are floating, so as to create a distorted but very constructed vision. Its character outline stroke is not closed. It’s something that I also practice, in order to let the reader’s imagination unfold in these interstices. »

Another lover of sketches imbued with the Sempé style, Alfred, who signed very pretty albums with elegant lines (Come PrimaFauve d’or at Angoulême in 2014, or Sensoin 2019) and tried his hand at humorous drawing for the magazine XXIalso sought to unlock the manufacturing secrets of the designer. “I opened his books to understand how he managed to be both dense and airy. My line was nourished by this questioning. »

The setting tells the character

A big name in current humorous cartoons, Voutch, who also claims to be from Sempé, has dissected his signature. “He often placed his characters in large, very detailed sets. So he didn’t need to draw one’s old-fashioned sweater or the other’s floral dress, because that’s the context that describes the character. I took up this idea of ​​narration through the decor. But it’s easier to think than to implement: I can spend three days on the sets before drawing the characters! »

Voutch’s heroes, who walk their long disillusioned silhouettes in a modern world sketched with a sometimes cruel humor, often display the same impassive faces as those of Sempé. “I prefer that the faces remain neutral in order to preserve the element of surprise of the caption and the humorous discrepancy. »

If the subjects addressed by Voutch are similar to those of Sempé – great hopes and small contemporary vanities –, the author takes care to detach himself from them. “I was very suspicious of his favorite themes. The simple fact of drawing an old lady in a large church or a little man lost in a metropolis will make people think of Sempé. He engulfed certain social situations. »

Mystery and magic?

Continue without imitating. Same challenge for Joann Sfar who, since 2016, alternated with Sempé in the pages of Paris Match. told him to have “tried to do work compatible with him by staging characters in Paris. The result looks like Sempé, but I use different tools: he drew from his imagination, I from nature”.

During a meeting with this admired artist, the creator of the Rabbi’s Cat tried to ask him about his work method. “He got out of it by a pirouette. But I think it was partly a mystery to him, a magic that eluded him. I have the impression that he was very anxious and that he was filling a void by drawing. He said: “I’m a bad musician, that’s why I draw musicians very well.” In a drawing, he was doing what he couldn’t do in life. I do the same thing. »

According to Thomas Ragon, Sempé has no heirs because he was not very generous. “He didn’t like comics because it wasn’t his time. But he showed a whole generation of authors, like Joann Sfar, Catherine Meurisse or Blutch, that inspirational, light, graceful drawing was a possible voice. So we have not finished seeing epigones of Sempé! »


The Folon Foundation exhibits the Belgian beginnings of Sempé in Brussels

Little is known about it, but Sempé published the first drafts of the Little Nicholas in a Belgian magazine, Mosquito. This is one of the reasons for the beautiful exhibition dedicated to him at the Folon Foundation, installed in an old farm near Brussels.

A journey that we follow while laughing out loud in front of these drawings with tender humor on the little things in life. The 120 originals allow you to discover astonishing series, close to comics, or collaborations with writers, such as Modiano or Süskind.

“Infinitely yours”. Until January 15 at the Folon Foundation, in La Hulpe (Belgium). Info. :

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