Cahiers d’Art founder Christian Zervos and Pablo Picasso collaborated to produce Pablo Picasso by Christian Zervos. A new edition will be debuted later this year.
PARIS - A few years ago, as he was strolling through Paris’ sixth arrondissement, Staffan Ahrenberg took a random turn that changed his life. That detour is now about to make a mark on art history, with the rebirth of the legendary Cahiers d’Art.
“It was pure accident!” says the energetic 55-year-old. “I was walking down the Rue du Dragon and I noticed a faded sign. Just for a moment a ray of sun lit it up. ‘Cahiers d’Art,’ it read. How strange, I thought. Can it still exist?”
It was a name he had known practically since his infancy – it appeared on countless publications that arrived at his home, situated in the idyllic village of Chexbres, near Lausanne.
In 1962, four years after Ahrenberg was born in Stockholm, his father, Theodor Ahrenberg, relocated his family to Switzerland. The elder Ahrenberg, a shipping and commodities magnate, had already assembled one of the largest collections of Modern and contemporary art in Northern Europe. Having always enjoyed meeting and spending time with artists, Theodor equipped his new estate with a guesthouse and studio where many illustrious artists were invited to take up residencies.
Staffan Ahrenberg. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF CAHIERS D'ART.
“So I grew up with constant interactions with fascinating people doing strange things,” recalls Ahrenberg. “Lucio Fontana, Christo, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle and Mark Tobey were some of the artists who stayed with us. It was very intense.”
Many other celebrated artists came to the family’s home. “I have a picture of Picasso holding me when I was two years old,” he says.
A cultured household such as this naturally subscribed to the magazines, books and catalogues published by Cahiers d’Art, which was founded in 1926 by Greek-born Christian Zervos. By 1960, he had published 97 issues of the Cahiers d’Art revue and more than 50 books, including monographs on Matisse, Man Ray, El Greco and on African and Mesopotamian art. Assisted by his wife, Yvonne, Zervos also operated a gallery on the premises.
Thanks to their remarkable qualities, the Cahiers d’Art publications have become highly sought-after by collectors and academics worldwide. Most prized of all is Pablo Picasso by Christian Zervos, a catalogue of over sixteen thousand paintings and drawings by the artist. Known by many simply as “the Zervos,” it was published in 33 volumes, between 1932 and 1978, in close collaboration with Picasso himself, and still remains the definitive reference to his work.
But the last issue of the Cahiers d’Art revue appeared in 1960, and many collectors long assumed the publishing firm had disappeared. Hence Ahrenberg’s surprise to find it was indeed still extant.
“I walked inside the building on the Rue du Dragon, and into a room with an Alvar Aalto table, upon which sat some back issues of the magazine. A man was sitting on a chair,” he recalls. “I had an instinct that I had stumbled upon this pure little jewel. The surprise of it just being alive seemed too good to be true.”
In spring 2013, to coincide with the publication of Calder by Matter, Cahiers d’Art presented an exhibition of over thirty works by the artist.
Also intriguing was the man’s answer when Ahrenberg asked him who owned Cahiers d’Art: “My brother.”
“Would your brother sell it?” Ahrenberg replied impulsively. “I don’t know where that question came from,” he says today.
But Ahrenberg left the building that day rather unhopeful. “The man told me he didn’t know. I gave my card to him and asked him to pass it to his brother, and then I left.”
The next day, however, Ahrenberg received a phone call from the brother: “I think we should meet,” he said simply. When Ahrenberg returned to the building, this gentleman didn’t greet him with “hello” but said quietly, “You’ve come at the right time.”
As it turned out, the brothers were the sons of Christian Zervos’ secretary, Marc de Fontbrune, who had acquired the firm after Zervos died in 1970.
Several months of negotiations followed. Once Ahrenberg acquired rights to all of the publishing house’s intellectual property, he knew he was sitting upon an enterprise with vast potential. But it was going to require considerable capital and effort. “I looked upon it like it was a tech start-up, without the technology,” he says.
Ahrenberg’s own background is eclectic. He attended university in Lausanne but did not graduate. Instead, at twenty, he went to work for eminent movie producer Alexander Salkind. The son of Russian émigrés, Salkind is best known for acquiring the Superman franchise in the 1970s.
“I worked for him for three years. That was my real university. He was based in Paris but didn’t really have an office. He liked to work out of old hotel lobbies, but from them he produced some of the biggest Hollywood films ever made, and he invented the concept of packaging movies and ‘preselling’ them to studios.”
Ahrenberg subsequently moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful independent producer himself. His films included The Quiet American, which earned an Oscar nomination for Michael Caine, and Total Eclipse, which featured the then little-known Leonardo DiCaprio, playing French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
All the while, the producer had been collecting art. He began by acquiring geometrical art from the 1950s by artists such as Victor Vasarely and Joseph Albers. Today, his collection includes artists ranging from Matisse and Picasso to Richard Serra and Martin Kippenberger.
On some occasions, Ahrenberg was able to mix art and film, such as with Johnny Mnemonic, a 1995 movie he produced that starred Keanu Reeves, which was directed by Robert Longo, an artist he collected.
For Ahrenberg, who is now based in Vevey, Switzerland, the acquisition of Cahiers d’Art fulfilled a longtime wish.
The Cahiers d’Art gallery, 14, Rue du Dragon (1944).
“For 30 years I was looking for a way to be actively involved in the art world professionally, without being a dealer.”
The first product of the revived publishing house appeared last October, when a new edition of Cahiers d’Art revue was launched, in collaboration with art world heavyweights Hans Ulrich Obrist and Sam Keller as coeditors. The issue featured works by Ellsworth Kelly, Cyprien Gaillard, Sarah Morris and the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.
“We had a strong reaction to the issue and it is growing faster than we thought. In keeping with the way Zervos operated, we will release one to three issues a year, but without any specific schedule, and we will work with a lead artist in every issue. It’s interesting what comes out of these collaborations.”
He has also just published a new monograph, Calder by Matter, in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, which features photos of the artist’s work by Herbert Matter.
Later this year Ahrenberg plans to republish the entire 33-volume Pablo Picasso catalogue, after he obtained the blessings of Claude Picasso. An undertaking of epic proportions, the new edition will offer corrections from the original edition and a translation into English. It will take four months to print. (Sotheby’s will be selling Cahiers d’Art publications on its website, as well as at catalogue desks at its main auction locations).
Various other ambitious new projects are now in development, too, such as an Ellsworth Kelly catalogue raisonné.
“It’s taken over my life. It’s unbelievable how much you can do with it,” says Ahrenberg exuberantly of the reborn firm. “I had no idea how much Cahiers meant to people. There’s a love factor here.”
To purchase Zervos’ Pablo Picasso and other Cahiers d’Art publications, go to zervos.sothebys.com.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]