Magazine article The Spectator

Economy and Wit

Magazine article The Spectator

Economy and Wit

Article excerpt

There is a drawing by Sempé of the Tour de France which is so brilliant that when Geoffrey Wheatcroft first saw it, he just knew he had to have it on the front of his history of the Tour de France. It is an aerial view of a gloomy, grimy French town round the streets of which a stream of dazzingly coloured bicyclists flow like a river of jewels meandering through a rubbish dump. It's not funny; it's not pointful; it's just a lovely counterpoint between the glamour of the big occasion and the banality of the watchers' lives, exquisitely composed and drawn.

The odd thing is that Sempé could never have done that 40, even 20, years ago.

He started life as a journeyman cartoonist, drawing single gags. From there he has gradually broadened out and blossomed, acquiring colour and boldness and breadth, until it is hard to call him anything but an artist. There are not many people of whom you can say that. There are Searle, Steinberg, Scarfe and Steadman (why do they all start with S? ), but not many more, and although Sempé is quite big in America, where they love him at the New Yorker, he has never really made his name here among the general public.

So Phaidon are to be applauded for taking the big plunge and issuing half a dozen books of his at the same time. Their publicity boasts that this is the first time his stuff has been collected in English, which is a little forgetful of Sempé's early collection from Perpetua (Women and Children First! , 1962) and a bit hurtful to me, as I wrote the introduction for the Harvill Press's The World of Sempé not that long ago. But the Phaidon explosion does give you a wonderful chance to survey Sempé's methods at leisure and to sort out his favourites.

He loves crowd scenes, and will often draw huge crowds just for a tiny joke (e. g.

a vast crowd of angry people waving placards, of which one says, 'For rent, flat, 2 beds, kitchen, bathroom.'). He loves silent film gags (cartoon of family parking their car above a beach, showing the children rushing joyously into the water, then the parents rushing into the water, then the dog, then last of all the car). He loves musicians, bicycles, millionaires, railway lines, talking.

Ah, now that is the strange thing. Many of his drawings are mute, or have just a one-line caption, but sometimes one of his characters will suddenly spout a long monologue, more apt to a pretentious French novel or drama than a drawing. …

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