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Nothing Is Simple April 10, 2010

Posted by leskanturek in Art History, Drawing, Student Post.
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Post by Pratima Mani
One of the most pleasantly surprising gifts I received from my sister over winter was a collection of cartoons by the 1930’s born French cartoonist Jean-Jaques Sempé. She had informed me that Sempé’s work was highly stylized, and very simple: pure black contour on white background. For someone who has always preferred more realistic/detailed/ rendered illustration (Peter  de Seve, James Jean, Frank Miller), this wasn’t what I wanted to hear. 

(above) The cover of Sempé’s first published collection, “Rien N’est Simple” (Nothing is Simple) from  http://www.pbase.com/csw62/image/38206202
Sempé is a cartoonist and so I (wrongly) expected work that was clever, and quippy…but not particularly touching.  I was completely blown away by how endearing he managed to make his illustrations. Most of them feature visual repetition of some form. Sempé often repeats a single object/person and then adds an odd one out who is doing something totally different. At times he creates a series of very similar illustrations the slowly change and tell a story over time. 

The result is that Sempé’s illustrations make you chuckle for their own pictorial quality; they do not overly rely on the text crutch to draw a response from readers. You laugh at the ‘black sheep’ of the image, or at how the characters expressions change from one frame to the next. The illustration speaks for itself, almost like those instances when you see some falling over in a ridiculous manner and it’s somehow funnier than the wittiest joke. 

Sempé’s linework itself is one of those shining examples of the warmth of hand-drawn art.  It is as clean as something pen-tooled but has a slight slant at times and a wavering line width. Seeing these traces of the hand-at-work, knowing that Sempé put in the effort to make all those repetitions for a single frame of illustration, is very special indeed.

(above) left  The cover of Sempé’s 1962 published collection, “Tout Se Complique” (Everything is Complicated)  right The cover of Sempé’s translated published collection, “Everything is Complicated”


(above)  Sempé’s illustration on the 5/3/1961 issue of “Punch“.


On a side note, and something I didn’t know until I looked up Sempé for this post- he has done many New Yorker covers! An example below:

(above) Sempé’s illustration on the cover  of “The New Yorker” (5/20/85 ) from  http://www.thejumpingfrog.com/si/1270952.html



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