How a Swedish Movie Producer Turned Art Collector Revived the Parisian Institution Cahiers d’Art
Staffan Ahrenberg. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Staffan Ahrenberg. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

The prestigious 20th-century, French journal Cahiers d’Art was home to artists and writers at the forefront of Modernism. The first years of the revue (founded in 1926) were simultaneous with the rise of movements including the BauhausCubism, and Surrealism, and the publication thus covered the emerging work of László Moholy-NagyPicasso, and Max Ernst, amongst many others. 

Marc de Fontbrune at the Cahiers d’Art gallery, 1957. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Marc de Fontbrune at the Cahiers d’Art gallery, 1957. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Writers like Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, and Samuel Beckett were given free reign for poetry and prose, while psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was invited to write theoretical articles. Cahiers didn’t simply feature the work of artists, it invited them to actively collaborate, the pages of the journal thus mirroring the energy of the gallery in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where exhibitions were organized by the founder Christian Zervos, and his partner Yvonne, several times a year. By 1960, the Cahiers d’Art imprint had over 50 books and 90 issues to its name, the hefty monographs often coming out of Zervos’s enthusiastic correspondence with artists across Europe. Best known is the highly esteemed 33-volume Pablo Picasso by Christian Zervos catalogue, an extensive reference work with 16,000 images, which was originally published between 1932 and 1978, and republished as a complete set in French and English in 2013.

Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

The fervour of Zervos’s original venture was matched nearly a century later, when Staffan Ahrenberg, one-time movie producer and art collector, was struck by the Cahiers d’Art sign above 14 Rue du Dragon. He knew the modern serif so well from coffee table publications in his art-filled home growing up in Chexbres, Switzerland, and he wondered if the journal behind the letters could still exist. In fact, there hadn’t been an issue since 1960, though the business was still officially running from this Rive Gauche address.

Picasso exhibition at Cahiers d’Art. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Picasso exhibition at Cahiers d’Art. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Struck by the aura of the gallery, the weight of Modernism still hanging in the air, Ahrenberg asked the manager if the owner would consider selling, surprising himself at his own forthrightness. The spontaneous request came with impeccable timing: the current owner, who had inherited the business from his father (who had been Zervos’s secretary), was looking to pass on Cahiers. And with this happy serendipity, a new era for the art imprint began.

Cahiers d’Art, 14 Rue du Dragon, Paris. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Cahiers d’Art, 14 Rue du Dragon, Paris. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

In 2012, Ahrenberg re-launched the Cahiers journal, retaining its elegant type but renewing its content with major players from the contemporary art world—Ellsworth KellySarah MorrisCyprien GaillardAdrián Villar Rojas, and Oscar Niemeyer all featured in this first new issue, with editing from curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist and Fondation Beyeler director Sam Keller. The Paris gallery was reopened with an added library, and exhibitions from artists significant to its history like Alexander Calder, as well as established contemporaries—Rosemarie Trockel and Philippe Parreno. Meanwhile, 15 Rue du Dragon,  became devoted to limited edition artist prints and editions. It’s natural that Cahiers should continue to focus on the endurance of the printed page, the tactile pleasure and sought-after quality of artist prints. The institution has paper in its very name—“cahier” being French for “exercise book” or “notebook.” With Ahrenberg’s direction, Cahiers d’Art is set to draw lines through the contemporary art landscape for decades to come.

Cahiers d’Art Editions, 15 Rue du Dragon, Paris. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.

Cahiers d’Art Editions, 15 Rue du Dragon, Paris. Courtesy Cahiers d’Art.