PARIS (Reuters) - From his Paris apartment, cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe can look out over the city’s rooftops, a fitting spot for a man who seems to prefer looking at the world from an elevated angle.
But as a new exhibition of his work in Paris shows, it’s the close-up detail in his drawings, the kind that takes a moment to notice, that captures the essence of his subject and pokes fun at the vanity of human nature.
At 79, Sempe (pronounced Som-pay) is well known in France and abroad for his cheeky 1950s schoolboy Le Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas), co-created with Asterix author Rene Goscinny.
But it is his mastery of panoramic cityscapes, drawn from a high viewpoint and with a gently ironic touch, that has sealed his international reputation, earning him regular spots on the cover of The New Yorker, as well as in Paris Match and L’Express.
In one drawing, the viewer looks down at a typical Parisian street corner, a grand 19th-century apartment building complete with an awning-shaded cafe terrace at street level.
But as the eye scans down, it comes to two buses that have collided in the street, then right at the bottom, the bobbing heads of dozens of irate passengers who have piled off the vehicles to rant at each other about who was at fault.
The scene says a lot about a country where contrarianism is close to a national sport. But the lofty angle leaves you smiling at the overall futility of it all.
“His work is a permanent reminder of the human condition,” said Marc Lecarpentier, curator of “Un peu de Paris et d’ailleurs” (A Bit of Paris and Elsewhere), a retrospective of the French artist’s six-decade career which opened on Friday in Paris city hall.
“We are all so tiny and when we try and throw our weight around, or are a bit vain. Sempe’s there to remind us we’re all going to die one day, so we might as well look on the bright side instead of being mean and petty,” he told Reuters.
The show, which runs to February 11, includes 300 original drawings from Sempe’s career, which has produced thousands of cartoons and more than 40 albums, translated into 25 languages.
In one of his American-themed cartoons, the viewer sees an impressive city skyline of towering apartment blocks, lying beneath a beautiful full moon. But on closer inspection, each of the hundreds of square windows contains a roughly-sketched couple, staring transfixed at the same black television set.
In another aerial view of a busy highway, cars head relentlessly toward a sprawling, spaghetti junction, following road signs ordering “Up Town,” “Down Town” or “Circle.” But in a mischievous touch, the last lane is labeled “Hesitants” and points off to the right, taking undecided drivers round on a loop back to where they started.
“Some people see the absurdity of humanity. Some people see the metaphysical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Others the relation between space and time,” said Lecarpentier.
“It’s really hard to comment on Sempe.”
The cartoonist was born in Bordeaux on August 17, 1932, and worked as a toothpaste salesman and apprentice in the wine trade before publishing his first drawings in 1950.
He first dreamt up the schoolboy character Nicolas in 1952 for Belgian newspaper Le Moustique, later turning him into a comic strip and series of albums with the help of Goscinny.
After contributing full page drawings to Paris Match and L’Express for the best part of two decades, and getting cartoons in Punch and Esquire, he drew his first cover for The New Yorker in 1979, going on to contribute more than a hundred.
Although he continues to produce drawings of contemporary scenes and still publishes drawings in Paris Match, his work carries the nostalgia of a bygone era, a postwar world inhabited by Jacques Tati or Robert Doisneau.
“I feel much closer to the time when buses had open platforms. An open-platform bus is a delight. You caught terrible colds in them, but that was part of Paris life, and it enchanted me,” Sempe is quoted as saying in the exhibition.
Even Sempe, however, sees the ironic side of this hankering after the past.
In one drawing of an anonymous city, rows of modern tower blocks contrast with a jumble of traditional old buildings across the road.
The billboards and restaurants on the old town lust after a brighter, modern future — “Self-Service,” “Le Moderne,” “New Shop.” The tower blocks on the modern side all show nostalgia for a simpler past, with restaurants named “The Old Windmill,” “The Old Well” or “Grandma’s Loft.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald