Staffan Ahrenberg’s acquisition of Cahiers d’Art a few years ago was a nostalgic purchase. Ahrenberg, the scion of a prominent Swedish collecting family, had his memory jogged on a walk past the publication’s offices at 14 rue du Dragon in Paris, recalling its founder’s name, Christian Zervos, amid the spines of his father’s library. Zervos, who founded the publication in 1926 and ran it through 1960 (with a brief interruption during WWII), is best known for his Picasso catalogue raisonné, widely held to be the most comprehensive of its kind.
Cahiers d’Art published many significant artists over the course of its 35-year run under Zervos — including the likes of Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, and Van Gogh, among others — although it was not alone in this distinction. The Picasso catalogue raisonné was no doubt the crown jewel driving Ahrenberg’s bid for the beleaguered print publication, which had passed on to a second owner upon Zervos’s death in 1970. A $20,000 reissue of the raisonné will soon be distributed by Sotheby’s.
The relaunched periodical itself doesn’t have big shoes to fill — it must conjure the idea of big shoes for people who have never known them. If the relaunch issue, published in late 2012, is any indication, the journal is firmly ensconced in the annals of memory. Buying a storied art magazine and filling it with prestigious artists is one thing; it’s another entirely to capture a feeling of momentum, to exist not just as a pleasing anachronism but as an entity of aesthetic and intellectual purpose.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. Speaking of The Paris Review, whose contemporary aesthetic also leans heavily on a soothing midcentury affect, the editors of n+1 ruminated that “it is clear that a product this beautiful is not meant to be read, but to be eaten.” We haven’t quite swallowed Cahiers d’Art, but we’ve been nibbling on it since we received a copy a few months ago. There really isn’t much to say about the beautifully designed thing itself — the issue features Ellsworth Kelly (a special print is also inset) alongside selected items from his collection of birdstones and bannerstones. There’s also a good if tedious essay about museum architecture by New York University professor Jean-Louis Cohen that accompanies a series of photographs of Oscar Niemeyer buildings.
The greatest visual challenge comes from “Nightlife,” a set of black-and-white photographs of urban foliage taken by Cyprien Gaillard that are a stark evocation of organic growth and artificial decay. Sarah Morris‘s geometric work, some new, quaintly dystopian illustrations from Adrián Villar Rojas, and a 1935 “Conversation with Picasso” round out the back end of the magazine. The care with which the cahier was physically assembled is evident — the pages vary in their finish, as befits the work depicted, and some prints can be detached. It carries a heft hyperbolically consonant with the historical weight of its name. The publication’s editorial team was curated with a similar sensibility — former Art Basel director Samuel Keller and Gesamtkunstman Hans-Ulrich Obrist join Ahrenberg on the masthead.
In the issue’s introductory essay, Christian Zervos is referred to as the magazine’s “founder and tireless editor,” and indeed he was. That a leisurely aristocrat has revived Zervos’s creation is a powerful eulogy, but it also consigns the project to the status of a coffee-table mausoleum — though we’re sure some will find the minimum 108 Euro two-issue subscription (the magazine is published irregularly) to be a worthy tribute. What’s more unusual is the second tier of membership, labeled “Patronage,” which for 1,000 Euros offers 10 issues to the subscriber and a donation of the same to a school or institution of their choosing. It’ll certainly look good on some library shelves, though any student of art with access to Wikipedia and academic databases would at this point be minimally enriched by the contents of the new Cahiers d’Art. But the striving for scholarly legitimacy reveals the scale of Ahrenberg’s ambition, indicating perhaps his desire to build something that could, with some editorial electrification, attempt for visual art what the contemporary Paris Review does for literature: offer a magazine at once beautiful, nostalgic, and relevant. And that’s not altogether a bad thing.
Cahiers d’Art is available from Editions Cahiers d’Art.
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