The Great Book of Picasso Returns

On February 15th the definitive, massive, comprehensive catalogue of Picasso’s works will be published—again—thanks to Cahiers d’Art and its new owner. Sarah Moroz on the rebirth of a famous publishing house, gallery, and art journal.

02.15.14 10:45 AM ET

Christian Zervos was a Greek-born critic and collector who became a staple of the Parisian art scene in the first half of the 20th century. In 1926, he launched Cahiers d’Art, a publishing house, gallery, and seminal art journal characterized by its tastemaker contributors, meticulous layout, and incredible art (both classic and modern). The likes of Paul Éluard, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett appeared alongside visuals by Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, and Marcel Duchamp. The revue and publishing house ran from 1926-1960 (except for a hiatus during World War II), and at the same time, between 1932-1970, Zervos organized multiple exhibitions per year at his gallery space.

After Zervos’s death in 1970, Cahiers d’Art remained extant if inactive. The sons of Zervos’s secretary maintained the idle flame, trading in books, catalogues, lithographs and prints, notably dispatching Cahiers d’Art archives to the Centre Pompidou, and Picasso’s correspondence to the Picasso Museum.

In 2011, Cahiers d’Art was acquired by Swedish art collector Staffan Ahrenberg. “I wasn’t looking to buy a publishing company,” Ahrenberg clarified during an interview in the minimalist headquarters in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. As he tells it, he happened to pass by Cahiers d’Art on rue du Dragon, and was startled that the dormant publisher was still operational and had a physical address. On a whim, he went in and inquired about whether it was on the market. He left his business card, walked out, and expected not to hear back. But he did hear back, and once a deal was finalized Cahiers d’Art became a revived revue, publishing house, and gallery—a hybrid model of past and present art history. Or as Ahrenberg says with delight, “We have awoken Sleeping Beauty.”

Though he had no publishing background, Ahrenberg hired consultants and asked art-world friends to be on the advisory board. He was hardly an amateur either; his savvy in both the art and business were crucial. He springs from art pedigree: Ahrenberg’s father, Theodor, had one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary art in northern Europe, and was a client of Zervos. Moreover, the senior Ahrenberg had a personal relationship with Picasso and Matisse, collecting them while they were alive in the ‘50s.

Staffan Ahrenberg himself began collecting art at age 19 and deems himself an “engaged non-professional.” The Swedish-born, Switzerland-schooled entrepreneur lived in L.A. during his 20s, working for a Hollywood producer. He himself went on to produce The Quiet American and Johnny Mnemonic. He later became active in entrepreneurial companies, starting TV stations in the Baltic states and investing in start-ups. “I understand the concept of business and startups,” Ahrenberg says with easy assurance. He frames his Cahiers d’art venture as “a re-start-up.”

In specifying his approach, Ahrenberg stated: “We decided our program, defined not in stone but in concept. We would obviously work with the artists of Zervos’s time, the classics of modern art, living masters of contemporary art, and younger artists, like Philippe Parreno, Cyprien Gaillard, Adrien Mondot.” There are two principles he adheres to within his publications: no advertising, and truly taking the time to do projects thoroughly.

On February 15th, Cahiers d’Art will republish the long‐out‐of‐print Zervos Picasso Catalogue, comprised of 33 volumes with over 16,000 paintings and drawings. This was a longtime collaboration between Zervos and Picasso; as early as 1932 Zervos set out to compile an exhaustive, annotated catalogue of Picasso’s work. The full compendium was not completed until 1978, eight years after Zervos’ death. The reissued catalogue will be identical to the original—implementing the same luxuriously thick paper and the same binding technique—plus it remains in black and white (color reproduction can be erroneous, and thus less faithful to source Picasso). It diverges only in its corrections of known misattributions. It will be translated into English, from the original French, for the first time.

Why publish this catalogue today? “Because it has to be in print,” Ahrenberg insists. “It is an essential piece of information and an iconic work that was made over 45 years. It’s the Bible of Picasso.” Rallying for this art history artifact and touchstone, Ahrenberg notes: “It’s out of reach, because if you want to buy one you have to pay a fortune. It used to go at auction from $60,000-200,000. That’s expensive for a bunch of catalogues,” he admits. “It becomes more of an asset in your library than a tool.” As for the price point, of $20,000: “We priced it quite low—it may sound expensive—but it’s 33 volumes, it weighs 130 kilos. It’s a serious thing when you buy it. It’s never been below $40,000, so it’s kind of a bargain,” he jokes. But in earnest, he continues, “you’re getting an incredible thing.” During its pre-sale period, it has been purchased from Pakistan to Malaysia, from Russia to all over Europe, scooped up by libraries, collectors, and artists.

Ahrenberg speaks reverentially of the publishing house’s rich heritage. “We have a lot. And the amount of things one can still find out… the things one can still view and see and do is actually limitless,” he marvels. As much as he venerates the art of earlier eras, Ahrenberg is not stuck in the past. “It doesn’t preclude that we will do digital things,” he says. “I am a big believer—especially for art, but in general—that books and paper publishing will always remain. I’m happy to see that these very heavy books are being extremely well-received and bought.” Still, he is curious, and eager, to transpose artists’ work into the digital landscape to match the kind of work being created today—and to make older works available for those who haven’t yet been lucky enough to discover them.