Sempé, au revoir

12th August 2022 | Musings | 2 comments

It was sad to read that the French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé has died at the age of 89.

I first came across his drawings when my French class at school studied Le Petit Nicolas, the delightful adventures of a little French boy in an idealised 1950s world. It was probably my first encounter with that particularly French blend of charm, irony and humour achieved with a light touch.

Later on I came to relish Sempé’s cartoons of musicians. One of the earliest I got to know was ‘le chat de la violoncelliste’, in which a bored cat slinks out of the room while a lovely lady cellist practises with a rapt expression. It prepared me for the experience, in later years, of several cats of my acquaintance who made a habit of getting up off the sofa with a sigh and leaving the room with a withering expression when I practised the piano.

Sempé became famous for the many covers he drew for the New Yorker. I loved the one he drew for the cover of March 12, 1984. A symphony orchestra has just finished performing something, and the conductor is gesturing grandly towards the solo pianist to acknowledge his contribution. The pianist in turn is gesturing grandly towards the leader of the orchestra who is gesturing grandly towards his desk partner; she gestures grandly towards the player sitting behind her, and so it goes on, each musician gallantly acknowledging the next, round four or five tiers of the concert hall platform until we come to the percussion section at the back and the smiling figure of the little triangle player who bows as he receives the accumulated congratulations of all his colleagues.

Many of Sempé’s musical cartoons show a small performer striving valiantly to make some kind of impact in a large world. He seemed to understand very well the feelings of the pianist trying to look confident as he traverses the acres of empty space between himself and the huge black instrument just daring him to sit down and make a fool of himself.

2 Comments

  1. Mary Cohen

    I just saw the New Yorker cartoon you describe so well. Sempé will be long remembered for bringing humour to situations universally shared by musicians.

    Reply
  2. Rhonda Rizzo

    “He seemed to understand very well the feelings of the pianist trying to look confident as he traverses the acres of empty space between himself and the huge black instrument just daring him to sit down and make a fool of himself.” So well stated!

    Reply

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