With the imminent publication of a new edition of the 33-volume Picasso Catalogue by Christian Zervos, interest is building in the man behind this monumental work of art scholarship. Michael Glover examines Zervos’s remarkable lifelong relationship with Pablo Picasso, and the sacrifices he endured to create this record of the artist’s oeuvre. 

NEW YORK - The catalogue raisonné of the works of Pablo Picasso, first published in 33 volumes over a period of 46 years (1932-1978) by his friend Christian Zervos, was unparalleled in its scope and comprehensiveness. Although incomplete, it lists more than 16,000 paintings and drawings, and continues to be a touchstone for scholars to this day. As John Richardson, Picasso’s definitive biographer put it in the first volume of A Life of Picasso, the Zervos is “the foundation on which all writers on Picasso are obliged to build.”

Christian Zervos and Pablo Picasso enjoyed a lifelong friendship and literary partnership. Photograph courtesy of Cahiers d’Art.

When Christian Zervos first met Pablo Picasso in 1924 during a convivial evening at the Closerie des Lilas, the café favoured by artists in the Latin Quarter, the Spanish artist had already lived in Paris for almost a quarter of a century. The young Greek scholar, who arrived in Paris in 1911 following a childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, had just become an editor of the magazine L’Art d’aujourd’hui, giving him immediate access to the artists of the avant-garde. The two immigrants would be central figures in the Paris art world for some five decades, and their friendship endured for life. Zervos was utterly seduced by the art of Picasso, if less so by the somewhat unsavory habits of the man, which ranged from womanizing to a tendency toward deviousness.

In 1926, using money he received as compensation for a car accident, Zervos founded Cahiers d’Art – which was both a review and a publishing house. The review, which was published several times a year, represents the beginning of the art press as we know it today, and many issues were substantially devoted to Picasso, including reproductions of his latest works, and articles by musicians, poets, painters and critics in a range of languages.

A 1928 issue of Cahiers d’Art was one of many featuring the work of Picasso. © Cahiers d’Art.

It was Picasso who was eager to produce a catalogue of his works. By this point in his career he sought objective proof that he was the preeminent artist of his times; he also saw the project as an aid in reflecting upon his protean output. In 1932 the first volume was published and it proved a difficult and hazardous decision financially. Sales were desultory. Zervos had to sell his car and his apartment, and borrow money from his brother. Nevertheless, the way it was produced would set a new standard for the catalogue raisonné. The paper on which it was printed was thick and of a good quality, enabling you not only to see, but almost to feel the impact of the works. The illustrations, though monochromatic from first to last, were impressively large for such an enterprise. When bound, each volume, though never exceeding 200 pages in length, feels as heavy and as substantial as a Victorian ledger.

Artist Pablo Picasso. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

Perhaps more important still was the very simple fact that this catalogue raisonné was a work in which both men actively participated from first to last. Many such projects are published after the death of the artist, which means that much vital evidence – letters, inventories, works, and, last but not least, the opinions of the artist himself – are beyond reach. Not so the Zervos.

Zervos was the most obsessively devoted of cataloguers, and the enterprise is both unique and uniquely important because it was an ongoing act of documentation that was taking place, assiduously, decade by decade, during the artist’s own lifetime. Picasso put his own personal imprint on the project. From time to time we can feel him at Zervos’s elbow, providing information that will rebut the mistakes of critics and curators. In 1939, for example, Alfred H. Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, asserted that the primitivism of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon showed the influence of the art of the Ivory Coast and the French Congo. Not so, retorted Picasso, who insisted that Zervos insert a note into the catalogue to the effect that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in fact owed nothing to African art and everything to a series of reliefs from Osuna that he had seen at the Louvre a year or so before the painting was made.

Christian Zervos maintained a lifelong friendship with Pablo Picasso. Photograph by Rogi Andre, Courtesy of Cahiers d’Art.

Zervos championed Picasso the artist through thick and thin. Their conversations appeared intermittently in Cahiers d’Art, giving unique insights into the thinking of the man behind the art. No biographical study of Picasso is complete without a citation of some memorable remark Picasso has made to his friend. The two were inseparable, whether at the Café Flore, the Deux Magots or at some villa in the South. Françoise Gilot, in her memoir, remembers Zervos arriving with his photographer to record the latest works.

What is more, Zervos would attack Picasso’s attackers when the need arose – on the occasion, for example, when Carl Jung described Picasso as “demoniacally attracted to ugliness and evil.” Being a communist, Zervos had high praise for Picasso’s stance during the Spanish Civil War. There was no greater work than Guernica, no more heroic an artistic testament.

And the massive undertaking of the catalogue itself, to quote the critic Patrick O’Brian, was “worthy of a conventful of Benedictines.” Some 35 years have passed since the last volume of the Zervos was published. Over the ensuing decades, complete sets have become virtually unavailable, and various errors have come to light. Now, with Cahiers d’Art under the new ownership of Staffan Ahrenberg, the Zervos is being reissued, with all known errors corrected under the supervision of the Picasso Administration. More importantly, it will finally appear in an English edition. Because the first printing of this new edition is limited, according to the publisher, to 1,100 numbered copies in English and just 400 in French, it will still remain relatively rare – but for those lucky enough to obtain a set, their library will be imbued not only with a beautiful and valuable work of scholarship, but also with the story of two remarkable men who helped shape the course of 20th-century art.

Michael Glover is a poet and art critic of The Independent.

Sotheby’s is honoured to be the exclusive worldwide distributor of the new edition of The Picasso Catalogue. The complete set is priced at $20,000, with a prepublication price of $15,000 valid until 15 December. To order online, please visit zervos.sothebys.com. For phone orders, please call + 1 212 894 1595 or + 44 (0)20 7293 6420.