It is one of those palaces that are so rich in history, and yet seem to abound in the city of Paris. Its enormous legacy is only betrayed — and only partly at that — by a discreet plaque located near the entrance: “Pablo Picasso lived in this building between 1936 and 1955. This is where he painted Guernica in 1937.”
On the 40th anniversary of the artist’s death, the future of the Hôtel de Savoie, once home to the “Grenier de Picasso” (Picasso’s Attic), is up in the air. Its owners want to renovate it and rent it out to a new tenant. The association that has kept the memory of this place alive over the last decade, the Comité national pour l’éducation artistique (CNEA), was working out of the top floor free of charge, and must vacate the premises by July 26. Its representatives warn that the future of Picasso’s attic workshop is in danger, and say they have turned to one of the painter’s heirs to see whether they can remain in the building. Although a deal could be announced late this month, for the moment the eviction order remains in place.
Picasso settled down in the attic of 7, Rue des Grands Augustins in 1936, on the recommendation of the outgoing tenant, actor and theater director Jean-Louis Barrault, who had lived there the three previous years and named his first company, the Grenier des Augustins, after the street. This is also where Balzac set the action of one of his short stories, The Unknown Masterpiece, which Picasso particularly appreciated. It was this fact that prompted him to rent out the place.
“And so, in the place of the unknown masterpiece, he would paint the well-known masterpiece,” summed up the photographer Brassaï in his 1964 Conversations with Picasso. The poet Jacques Prévert created his Groupe Octobre there, and the Surrealists were regular visitors. “It was the ideal republic,” wrote Barrault himself in the 1972 Souvenirs pour demain (or, Memories for tomorrow).
1936. Picasso sets up his studio at the Hôtel de Savoie in 1936, mostly based on the fact that it was the setting for a short story by Balzac, Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.
1937. The artist painted his best-known work, Guernica, in this atelier.
1944. American writer and journalist Ernest Hemingway gave Picasso a French flag taken from the barricades on the day that Paris was liberated.
1955. Picasso is evicted from the Hôtel de Savoie.
But things changed with Picasso’s eviction in 1955. The building, which has been owned by the Chambre des huissiers de justice (legal officers similar to bailiffs) since 1925, was kept in use for the professional association, while the atelier was, for decades, nothing more than a storage room for paperwork. In 2002, the owners reached an agreement with CNEA, by virtue of which this private cultural association would reform the workshop at its own expense and in exchange get to use the space for free for eight years. “It was abandoned and we renovated it completely, respecting its original state,” explains Alain Casabona, delegate general for CNEA.
The main room preserves the original look of the place. One of its ceiling beams bears the hook on which, according to Picasso (apparently with a good dose of imagination), Henry IV’s killer, Ravaillac, was hung and tortured. The ground floor is where Louis XIII was allegedly enthroned (the ceremony in fact took place not far from here).
Next to the atelier, Picasso’s bedroom now holds a sofa and a small office, separated from the association’s own office by a wall that was built later. The photographs and drawings — some originals and some copies — conceal a few unexpected jewels, such as the French flag that Ernest Hemingway brought back from the barricades and presented as a gift to the Spanish painter on the day that Paris was liberated, in 1944.
But the agreement with CNEA expired in 2010 and now the huissiers want to pour five million euros’ worth of renovation work into the building, in order to rent the whole thing out.
“The atelier is in no danger and the association’s life has nothing to do with the studio’s life,” says Alexandra Romano, of the Chamber’s communication services. “It is necessary to carry out restoration work in the entire building, and the economic reality is that the Chamber — which has loaned out a 250-square-meter space free of charge for 10 years to a private association — can no longer afford to keep up this sponsorship. They’ve been squatters for years. They have to go.”
Meanwhile, CNEA holds that it has found someone — one of Picasso’s heirs, whose name they would not disclose so as not to endanger the deal — who might be willing to rent the entire building and maintain the association in the attic workshop. It has also asked authorities to classify the attic as a landmark site — which the rest of the building already is — to award it legal protection. French President François Hollande has asked Culture Minister Aurélie Filipetti to make this issue a priority.