Picasso Meets Balzac
Even jaded longtime residents of Paris often stumble across hidden gems they didn’t even know existed. The other day I discovered a charming example laden with historic, artistic and literary connections. On the Rue des Grands Augustins in the sixth arrondissement, across from the trendy (and excellent) restaurant Ze Kitchen Galerie, the building at no. 7 bears a plaque noting that Pablo Picasso painted his renowned antiwar masterpiece “Guernica” while living and working there from 1936 to 1955. The good news is that Picasso’s former atelier, located on the top floor, can be visited during occasional exhibitions or by appointment.
Picasso is not the only historical celebrity associated with the atelier. In 1831, Honoré de Balzac published a short story called “Le Chef-d’œuvre Inconnu,” part of which is set in 1612 in this very building, where an artist named François Porbus (based on a historical figure, Frans Pourbus, a Flemish painter at the French court) has his atelier. The story tells what happens when a starving young artist called Nicolas Poussin visits his idol and meets another painter, the rich, mysterious Frenhofer, who will let no one see the masterpiece he has been trying to perfect for 10 years.
In 1927, Picasso was asked by his agent, Ambroise Vollard, to illustrate Balzac’s story, which is really more a treatise on art than a work of fiction. This illustrated version was published in 1931, one hundred years after the original. Several years later, Dora Maar took Picasso to see the atelier where some of the story’s action takes place and where he ended up living and working for the following nine years.
The building’s historical credentials don’t start or stop there, however. In 1610, the nine-year-old Louis XIII is said to have been crowned king of France in the building an hour after the assassination of his father, Henri IV. And, before Picasso took up residence in the studio, it was inhabited by the actor Jean-Louis Barrault, star of one of the most beloved and best-known French films of all time, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). Barrault founded his first theater company and held rehearsals there.
The credit for the atelier’s accessibility and the free temporary art exhibitions like “Picasso-Balzac,” held there in 2007, goes to the Comité National pour l’Education Artistique, an association that promotes art education for children and holds art, literature and music classes for schoolchildren in the atelier on weekday mornings.
In 2002, the CNEA’s director, Alain Casabona, renovated the Grenier des Grands-Augustins, which had been unused since the departure of Picasso in 1955. He has even written a novel, Le Grenier aux Merveilles (Editions du Rocher), with Patrick Renaudot, that recounts the history of the building in fictionalized form. Balzac’s story is also reprinted in the book.
Since the CNEA doesn’t receive any government subsidies, it relies on its own fundraising activities, one of which is renting out the atelier (equipped with a grand piano and a stage) for concerts and other events. A better space for an intimate recital or party would be hard to find.
Grenier des Grands-Augustins: 7, des Grands-Augustins, 75006 Paris. Métro: Tel.: 01 43 54 09 00. E-mail: c.n.e.a.@wandadoo.fr. Visits by appointment. www.cnea.fr
© 2007 Paris Update
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