Saturday, December 22, 2007

Art Appreciation: Sempé

Sempé is a French artist who draws beautifully simple and elegant cartoons. His stuff is very reminiscent of several artists who contribute cartoons to The New Yorker.

His stuff is amazingly well observed, thought out and drawn. His work always centers around the funny ways that people think and much of the humor comes from the weaknesses and foibles that people have.

Take a look at this one. This cartoon really knocks me out, on so many levels. Click to see it big enough to appreciate.

The composition is so great. The big area on the left of his driveway and garden is totally balanced by the small area on the right that is smaller but has as much weight as the big side on the left, because the right-side area has more tone and contrast and also more activity because the figures have dynamic poses while the left side is very static because there isn't anything alive or moving over there.

It's such a great idea to divide the two ideas in the picture with the big house. It separates the two ideas so that you can compare and contrast the two ideas: a rich man who has everything in the world he could ever want, and yet he takes the most pride in the most humble of his accomplishments: he managed to grow a head of lettuce.

Notice how useful that wheelbarrow behind him is: if you cover it up, it affects the picture. First, it allows him to have some black against his white clothes so that the contrast draws your eye to him; he is the most important element in those figures and they all have a lot of contrast (with their black clothes and white faces) so he needs to have some contrast to compete with them for the viewer's attention. Also it seems to me that the dark area of the wheelbarrow helps keep your eye from sliding off the right-hand side of the page. The little tiny flower behind his head seems to help keep your eye bouncing back and forth between his face and those of his friends. The friend of his that's kneeling is great because of the variation he adds to the poses of the group. Imagine how static the group would be without him there. He and the two figures in the left foreground help create - along with the lettuce and the proud homeowner - a great little circle that makes your eye rotate around that lettuce in a closed circuit, which is great because that gives the lettuce so much more importance and prominence. Take a second to look at how great the poses of his friends are: such great variety in them, and also how they work together compositionally to lean in towards the lettuce and then to lean away as they move to the right so that the homeowner can be alone and silhouetted.

I love the homeowner's pose: so clearly proud of his lettuce and yet so simply drawn. Usually when people draw "proud" they puff the chest out in the drawing. Yet without that cliché it still works beautifully and much more effectively. His pose definitely looks like an older, overweight rich guy.

The other side of the estate is so beautifully handled as well. It's so easy to just glance at the left and think "oh, I get it; he's wealthy" and then get the idea and turn the page. That's what's so amazing about a great artist: when they are so good that they can put over an idea so simply and clearly - and precisely - that you don't really think about just how great a job they did of handling it. Everything that says he's a rich man is so perfectly handled. From the types of cars he drew - either they have fins or they are small convertible sports cars, both great "shorthand" to say "expensive" - to the way the plants are handled contribute to the idea that he has a lot of wealth. Instead of just being hedges, the hedges have been turned into topiaries, which only the wealthy would bother to maintain like that. And the little arrow shapes of the topiaries are just complicated enough to look fancy without being so distracting as to draw unnecessary attention to them, for they are not important as individual ideas but for what they contribute to the whole.

I also love how the diving board above the pool is so frilly and fancy. And the great approach of making the area have so many "levels" - that helps with the idea that the area goes back into space, but since it keeps "stepping up" in space you can see all of it and see it very well as it recedes. But it also gives you the chance to draw all those different levels of fancy stairs and those fancy walls with the little pillars.

Lastly, the house is handled so well. It's drawn perfectly to say "expensive house". You glance at it and thing "okay, wealthy house" but it's just so precisely done. Take a second to look at the way the front entrance is handled so well. The stairs and the way the little banisters leading up to the door and so simple and yet so perfect to say that they're elegant. Also the edges of the house with the squares - I don't even know what those are or what they're called but I know I've seen them before in pictures of fancy European estates. What simple and obvious yet brilliant observation! And the details above the windows and the balconies really add a lot, as well as dividing up the windows into so many little panes. This gives a great sense of scale to the house and makes it look big but it also makes the windows look elegant and fancy.

Lastly, the texture on the roof seems really busy at first glance - why put so much detail up there? - but you'll notice that, again, it adds to making the scale of the house seem big, and it's also gives a much-needed balance to that part of the picture. If that roof was blank it would make the top half of the picture look empty and flat. It wouldn't balance well with the "busy" areas of the garden and the estate on the lower left and right.

If you enjoyed looking at this cartoon of Sempé's, there are several of his books available on I definitely urge everyone to check out his stuff - you won't be disappointed. I will scan some more of his stuff sometime if people are interested. This cartoon is from a collection called "Everything is Complicated".


Anonymous said...

I dunno... He grew a head of lettuce in his back yard? That's what that squiggle is? I didn't know that, even after examining the full scan, until I read your comment, but it's as good a theory as any.

Same with the wheelbarrow. The way he's got that false connection between the handle and a leg makes it unclear as to what that object even is.

For all the artist's elegance of design, I'd have to say he failed in the primary mission of communicating clearly. The gag didn't get put across well. To me anyway.

Funny idea though.

notanymike said...

me neither, but because I don't understand that much about humans...I could read the drawing very well...

Jazzy said...

Sempé is an amazing artist...but i think that there is something wrong with this image...! works..better on a magazine! said...

Sempé is French, and drawing for a French audience. The French would have no trouble recognizing it as a classic head of butter lettuce, since we have stayed close to the land and attach a lot of importance to our fresh foods, and we don't much like "romaine", the least flavorful of all salads.

More to the point, Sempé's drawings always have an element of the riddle to them. They present large complex scenes in which a little detail holds the key. That's part of the fun: having to figure out the key to the joke. That's also a very french thing: We don't like our entertainment to be completely pre-chewed, preferring instead to have to work at it a little. America is culturally different in that respect, as most hollywood productions, for instance, take great pains to explain and justify everything, leave no loose ends, and americanize anything that might be unfamiliar.

And if you've detected snootiness in my comments, it's because being convinced that our cultural ways are superior is also a basic tenet of French culture! Sorry about that, I can't help it. It's the way I was raised.

Jazzy said...

i totally agree but..!
This drawing has...a very sharp sense of wrorg with composition here...

mark kennedy said...

I have to say I am totally perplexed by the response to this drawing, but I'm rarely able to predict what people's reactions will be to posts. It's worth pointing out that any time I post drawings by Quentin Blake or other artists who draw in a "minimalist" style, I always find that very few people really like that kind of drawing. I don't think many people understand how difficult it is to "take away" everything that a drawing doesn't need and reduce it to it's "essence".
In any case, I would say that it's not really important to even know what kind of lettuce - or plant - he's even growing. The garden is drawn very clearly as a little "farm" with little rows and everything. His tools tell you that he's been gardening and his attitude should tell you what's going on.
I don't even find that Sempe's stuff is even that much of a riddle. I think that anyone familiar with the cartoons of "The New Yorker" would find that Sempe's work is interchangeable with much of the work found there. I guess it might take a little extra work to decipher an idea sometimes, but isn't that the best kind of art anyway, the kind that involves you and draws you in? I didn't think that was a distinctly American trait, to not want to work for your entertainment, but maybe it is. Who is reading the New Yorker, then, I wonder? Canadians?
In any case it's too bad nobody really enjoyed the post, I suppose maybe nobody took the time to read all that text!

JohnH said...

Ah, Sempe! I was given the first of the Nicholas books, which he illustrated. They're really quite charming.

samacleod said...


Eldrée said...

Great choice in Sempé, Mark! I think the picture is just lacking enough resolution to properly see the lettuce and also some of the smiling mouths of the people.

Sempé has made some big-format books (like A3 sized) filled with details that center around a funny detail somewhere. These drawings just don't work well on our 90dpi computer monitors, imho.

Anyway, I'd be happy to see more of him, maybe some stuff that doesn't need those huge resolutions?

By the way, Sempé drew several cartoons for the New Yorker himself.

Matt J said...

No, no-solid post Mark & your analysis is enlightening. The image you posted enlarges sufficiently but still on my laptop the lettuce IS hard to read but in a large format book I'm sure this would be no problem.
More great Sempé examples here:

notanymike said...

To Valot:

To you it may be "superior art;" but to us Americans it appeals to people only with ADD and/or Asperger's Syndrome...but there's nothing wrong with that (for me least...I have both and am part French!)

Brian said...

I'm a little confused why nobody has mentioned the goings on at the right corner of the house. I believe that while this party for the fat rich guy is going on there is someone being carried away around the back corner of the house, apparently drunk in my estimation.
What I see is commentary on the callousness of the incredibly rich. That anyone should be praised for one lonely head of lettuce that will probably be left to go to seed uneaten except by maybe a servant because the fat rich guy knows the dog pees out there and therefore considers his own lettuce dirty is a commentary of the highest sort, otherwise known as comedy.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for commenting everyone!

Johnh - I haven't seen those, I will seek them out.

steve - yes, I saw you post some of his stuff before, right? He's great.

eldreé - yes, the book is printed on poor paper. It didn't scan very well.

matt j -thanks for the kind words, glad you liked it and thanks for the link!

notanymike - hey, plenty of us Americans like Sempé and surely not ALL of us are afflicted with either malady.

brian - I don't have any idea what you're saying, I don't see that at all.
There's something inexplicably bizarre about this drawing and it's effect on people.