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11.8.07

Musée Zervos in Vézelay

Put this one on your To Do list. When visiting Vézelay, which you will do anyway to see the incredible Romanesque abbey of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (where Bernard of Clairvaux made his famous sermon whipping up enthusiasm for the disastrous Second Crusade), there is a new modern art museum in town. The Musée Zervos is located in a house, famously owned by the writer Romain Rolland, in the Rue Saint-Étienne, a narrow pedestrian street that leads up to the abbey church, now a basilica. After twenty-some years of government negotiations, it is now the home of a collection of art -- Picasso, Ernst, Giacometti, Léger, Calder, and others -- left to the city of Vézelay by the editor and art collector Christian Zervos. Nathaniel Herzberg has the story (Vézelay hérite d'un musée, July 29) for Le Monde (my translation):

Off the boat from Greece at age 17, passionate about art and publishing, Christian Zervos left his mark on several artistic fields. Lovers of theater are saluting, again this year, his essential role in launching the Avignon Festival in 1947. Lovers of books know his publishing house that, from 1926 to 1970, produced many works and contributed to the marketing of contemporary art to the publishing world. Lovers of the plastic arts, finally and especially, celebrate the man who, for forty years, devoted his magazine, Cahiers d'art, and the gallery that he opened with his wife, Yvonne, to the diverse emerging trends of the 20th century.

Of the hundred paintings and sculptures on show in Vézelay, not all passed through the couple's hands. "Christian Zervos owned these pieces, or could have owned them," says Brigitte Milleron, the museum's administrative director. Most of them come from the collection that he left to the city, works bought, or more often given by the artists whom he championed, often long before they were generally recognized. Alexander Calder, who forgot a magnificent mobile after an exhibit, then gave it to Yvonne. There was Max Ernst, who dedicated to Yvonne the painting La Sauterelle in 1934. Sold by Christian in 1936, the canvas has been purchased in 2002 by the museum, then still just a dream, with help from the city, the state, the federal and regional governments.
The collection was accepted by the city in 1970, but the museum took over 30 years to become a reality. The house of Romain Rolland was available, with the sole demand that the author's bedroom and writing space be preserved as it was when he lived there. This request has been honored, and the room is in almost the state (with the addition of the author's piano) it was in when Rolland, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 (and also held a doctorate in music history and taught the subject at the Sorbonne), wrote his later books Le Voyage intérieur in 1942 and Péguy in 1944. Although local residents make up most of the staff, the director had to be imported from Paris, although he does not condescend to live in Vézelay: Christian Derouet, a curator from the Centre Pompidou, visits the museum four times a year and essentially runs it from Paris.

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