Proust, Baudelaire – major exhibitions show France’s eternal love for literary greats

Several famous French authors are at the heart of major exhibitions throughout 2022. From the 19th century writers Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire, to the 400th anniversary of the birth of Molière, literature is increasingly present on the French cultural scene. RFI examines the country’s enthusiasm for its book heritage.

How was Proust’s life in Paris? How did this inspire his work? What is real and what is fictitious? The Carnavalet Museum in Paris delves into the author’s universe, revealing the most intimate moments of his personal life – including a recreation of his bedroom with a lock of his hair on the nightstand.

The recently restored museum celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth (1871-1922) with the exhibition “Marcel Proust, a Parisian novel” from December 16 to April 10.

Proust is best known for his work In Search of Lost Time, a saga of seven volumes filled with many characters and descriptions inspired by his encounters and experiences in the French capital at the turn of the 19e century.

Proust’s everyday life and social observations are used to tell a story of “coming of age” and his struggles to become a writer.

Camille Pissarro, “The Avenue de l’Opéra”, 1898. © C. Devleeschauwer / Reims Fine Arts Museum

Large maps indicate the places where he lived and spent his time socializing, mainly on the right bank of the Seine, while living paintings by artists such as Camille Pissarro help illustrate the era, a time of great upheaval and innovations.

There is even a copy of the criminal record indicating the arrest of Proust in a brothel at the Hôtel de Marigny on January 11, 1918.

With 280 pieces on display, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, architectural models, accessories and clothing, the exhibition is a journey into the past, retracing the author’s footsteps in the French capital over the years.

Hardcore fans can try to link the locations depicted in the novel with actual locations on the maps.

Marcel Proust – A Parisian novel, Musée Carnavalet




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What is behind this cult obsession of French writers, and especially their secret lives, the behind-the-scenes glimpse of inspiration in the making?

There is no doubt that “writers write” have universal appeal. People are always curious about the “ingredients” that go into making “works of art”.

Even the smallest details, from letters to postcards, snippets of news, newspaper clippings and personal items, seem to hold mythical powers over generations that follow.

This call is also understood by politicians, such as President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the house where Marcel Proust spent the summer holidays last September, reiterating the need to preserve cultural heritage.

Sadness as an inspiration

The exhibition “Baudelaire: melancholic modernity” from November 3, 2021 to February 13, at the BNF, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is a global exploration of another 19th century French writer – Charles Baudelaire, (1821-1867).

The work and life of the poet are seen through the prism of the artistic movement known as “the great school of melancholy” or the great school of melancholy. In short, how to turn depressing things into an art form.

The author of The evil flowers (The Flowers of Evil) (1857) and Paris spleen (1868) wrote that melancholy was “always inseparable from the feeling of beauty” and indeed he transformed his own contemplation of the sadness and ugliness of everyday life into poetry.

It must be said that Baudelaire did not lead a happy life, losing his father at a very young age, estranged from his family and later devoting all his heritage to a bohemian and chaotic way of life.

He experienced serious illness and exile at the end of his days. He was not in tune with the moral codes of the time, and his Flowers of Evil was the subject of a trial for “moral contempt” which ended in a fine.

But that in itself was a form of advertising, making the works even more appealing to its readership.

More importantly, “the controversy over his poetry was a way to explore new ideas and new topics,” Dominic Bentley-Hussey, a master’s student in French literature at the University of the Sorbonne, told RFI.

“For Baudelaire, controversy was above all a means of innovation, which is why his poetry lasted so long and had so much influence,” he says.

“A true God”

However, he was only cherished for his visionary talents later by other artists and then by the general public. The poet Arthur Rimbaud describes him as “the true god”, André Breton calls him “the first surrealist” and he is considered “the most important of poets” by Paul Valéry.

Rather than focusing on purely chronological and biographical aspects of the writer’s life, the objects on display at the BNF examine Baudelaire’s interaction with the cultural scene around him.

Baudelaire was also an art critic and made money as a translator, becoming the official translator of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose universe and prose he admired.

This theme of “spleen” or sadness is presented in the form of many works of art of the time, and references to other great figures of this movement such as Chateaubriand, Théophile Gautier and the painter Delacroix.

Photo of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire, taken by Charles Neyt between 1864 and 1866.
Photo of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire, taken by Charles Neyt between 1864 and 1866. © AFP / FRANCOIS GUILLOT

Although there are several key elements of the archives, such as the annotated manuscript of My heart laid bare, and an example of the galleys of the original edition of Flowers of Evil published in 1857, supplemented by handwritten corrections by Baudelaire, the aim of the exhibition is to take a broader view.

In many ways, its unique way of describing everyday life and sightings of Paris remain very modern, perhaps the key to its longevity.

“In the case of Baudelaire, what person, walking around Paris today, would say that a lot has changed since the parisian paintings? The anonymity, the frantic pace of life, the constant comings and goings of commuters that Baudelaire called “swarming” or “ant” still exist, and are even truer today than they were then. », Bentley-Hussey explains.

“I think maybe poets were a bit like the rock stars of their time. It is natural to want to know more about the person whose writing you are passionate about, and I think that induces a certain curiosity about their private life, “he concludes when asked why the exhibitions are so popular.

In the meantime, 2022 is a great year to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Molière (1622-1673) with events organized in France, and even in Kansas in the USA.

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