Proust, Baudelaire – major exhibits show France’s undying love of literary greats

Marcel Proust's everyday life and social observations are used to narrate his "coming of age" and struggles to become a writer in a new exhibition.
Marcel Proust's everyday life and social observations are used to narrate his "coming of age" and struggles to become a writer in a new exhibition. © RFI

Several famous French authors are at the heart of major exhibitions throughout 2022. From 19th century writers Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire, to the 400th anniversary of the birth of Molière, literature is ever more present on France's cultural scene. RFI looks into the country's enthusiasm for its bookish heritage.


What was Proust’s life like in Paris? How did it inspire his work? What is real and what is fictional? Paris's Carnavalet Museum dives deep into the author's universe, revealing the most intimate moments of his personal life – including a recreation of his bedroom with a lock of his hair on the night stand.

The recently restored museum is celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth (1871–1922) with the exhibition "Marcel Proust, a Parisian novel" from 16 December to 10 April.

Proust is principally known for his work In search of Lost Time, a saga of seven tomes filled with many characters and descriptions inspired by his encounters and experiences in the French capital at the turn of the 19th century.

Proust's everyday life and social observations are used to narrate a "coming of age" story and his struggles to become a writer.

Camille Pissarro, "L’avenue de l’Opéra", 1898.
Camille Pissarro, "L’avenue de l’Opéra", 1898. © C.Devleeschauwer / Musée de Beaux Arts Reims

Large maps pinpoint the places he lived and spent his time socialising, mostly on the Right Bank of the Seine, while vivid paintings by artists such as Camille Pissarro help to illustrate the era, a period of great upheaval and innovation.

There’s even a copy of the police record showing when Proust was arrested in a brothel in the Hôtel de Marigny on 11 January 1918.

With 280 items on display, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, architectural models, accessories and clothing, the exhibition is a trip down memory lane, retracing the steps the author took in the French capital through the years.

Die-hard fans may attempt to link places described in the novel with real places on the maps.

Marcel Proust - A Parisian Novel, Musée Carnavalet

What is behind this cultish obsession with French writers, and above all, their secret lives, the “behind-the-scenes” glimpse of inspiration in the making?

There is no doubt that “writers writing” has universal appeal. People are always curious as to the "ingredients" that went in to making "works of art".

Even the smallest details from letters, to postcards, odd scraps of information, newspaper clippings and personal objects seem to hold mythical powers over the generations who follow.

This appeal is also understood by politicians, like President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the house where Marcel Proust spent summer vacations last September, reiterating the need to preserve cultural heritage.

Sadness as inspiration

The exhibition "Baudelaire : la modernité mélancolique" from 3 November 2021 to 13 February, at the BNF, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is a global exploration of another 19th century French writer – Charles Baudelaire, (1821-1867).

The poet’s work and life is seen through the prism of the art movement known as "la grande école de la mélancolie" or the great school of melancholy. Put bluntly, how to turn depressing things into an art form.

The author of The Flowers of Evil (Les fleurs du mal) (1857) and Spleen de Paris (1868) wrote that melancholy was “always inseparable to the sentiment of beauty” and indeed he turned his own contemplation of sadness and ugliness of everyday life into poetry.

It has to be said that Baudelaire did not lead a happy life, losing his father at a young age, estranged from his family and later spending all of his inheritance on a bohemian and chaotic lifestyle.

He experienced serious illness and exile at the end of his days. He was out of sync with the moral codes of the time, and his Fleurs du Mal was the object of a court case for “moral outrage” which resulted in a fine.

But this in itself was a form of publicity, making the works even more alluring to his readership.

"For Baudelaire, controversy was above all a path to innovation, which is why his poetry has lasted so long and had so much influence," Dominic Bentley-Hussey, a Masters student in French literature at the Sorbonne University told RFI.

'A true God'

However, he was only cherished for his visionary talents later by other artists and then the general public. Poet Arthur Rimbaud described him as “the true god”, André Breton called him “the first surrealist” and he was considered “the most important among poets” by Paul Valéry.

Rather than focus on purely chronological and biographical aspects of the writer’s life, the items on display at the BNF look at Baudelaire’s interaction with the cultural scene around him.

Baudelaire was also an art critic, and earned money as a translator, becoming the official translator for the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose universe and prose he admired.

This theme of “spleen” or sadness is presented in the form of numerous artworks from the time, and references to other great figures of this movement such as Chateaubriand, Théophile Gautier and the painter Delacroix. 

Photo of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire, taken by Charles Neyt between 1864 and 1866.
Photo of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire, taken by Charles Neyt between 1864 and 1866. ©AFP/FRANCOIS GUILLOT


Although there are several key items from the archives, such as the annotated manuscript of Mon Cœur Mis à Nu, and an example of the galleys of the original edition of Fleurs du Mal published in 1857, complete with Baudelaire’s handwritten corrections, the objective of the exhibition is to look at the wider picture.

His unique way of describing people and places remains very modern, perhaps the key to his longevity.

"In the case of Baudelaire, what person, walking through Paris today, would say that very much has changed since the poet’s tableaux parisiens?" Bentley-Hussey asks.

"Anonymity, the frenetic pace of life, the constant to-ing and fro-ing of commuters that Baudelaire famously called ‘swarming’ or ‘ant-like’ still exists, and if anything, is even more true now than it was then," he explains.

"I think that poets may have been a little like the rock-stars of their time. It's natural to want to discover more about the person whose writing has thrilled you, and I think this leads to a certain curiosity about their private life," he concludes when asked about why exhibitions about writers are so popular.

Meanwhile, 2022 is a big year for marking the 400 years since the birth of Molière (1622-1673) with events organised in France, and even Kansas in the USA.

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