Owners of mansion seeking to evict arts organisation because rent-free deal has expired
The 17-century Hotel de Savoie on the Rue des Grands Augustins in the chic 6th arrondissement of Paris is one of the grand mansions for which the French capital is famous.
A greying plaque next to the building’s wrought iron gates, however, reveals added historic value. “Pablo Picasso lived in this building between 1936 and 1955. It is in this studio he painted Guernica in 1937”, it proclaims.
Today, the Hotel de Savoie has seen better days. However, the studio, which Honore de Balzac described as “so large that the skylight fails to illuminate the corners” and which is reached via an impressive entrance hall and spiral staircase, is recognisable from photos showing Picasso at work here.
For more than a decade, le grenier de Picasso (Picasso’s attic) has been occupied rent-free by a private cultural organisation, the Comite National Pour l’Education Artistique (CNEA), which has maintained it as a venue for exhibitions and children’s workshops.
Now the building’s owners want it back and have issued an eviction order, sparking a bitter legal row over the future of the studio. The Chambre des Huissiers de Justice (Chamber of Legal Bailiffs), which acquired the building in 1925, says it plans a much-needed €5m renovation of the Hotel de Savoie.
It says the agreement with the committee expired in 2010, since when the organisation has “squatted” the premises, ignoring requests to leave. Its eviction order, upheld by a Paris court, gave the CNEA until Wednesday this week to get out.
The CNEA has called on the French president, Francois Hollande, to list the studio as a special “landmark” site, and has garnered support from the great and good, including the actor Charlotte Rampling, philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and former Socialist culture minister Jack Lang.
Picasso moved into the studio after separating from his wife Olga; 7 Rue des Grands Augustins was already familiar to him as it featured in the opening scene of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, a literary work he admired.
It was here that Picasso sat out the Nazi occupation of Paris, a time of alternating harassment and wooing of left-leaning intellectuals by the Germans. When one German officer tried to bribe the artist with extra coal to heat his studio, Picasso reportedly refused, retorting: “A Spaniard is never cold!”
In his book Conversations with Picasso, Gyula Halasz, the Hungarian photographer, sculptor and filmmaker known as Brassai, wrote that Picasso loved the spacious studio that made him feel “he was inside a ship with its bridge, its stores, its hold”.
Today, one of the ceiling beams still bears the hook Picasso liked to claim Henry IV’s killer, Ravaillac, was hung and tortured on, and among the objects on display is a French flag Ernest Hemingway presented to Picasso on the day Paris was liberated in 1944.
Alain Casabona, CNEA spokesman, told a press conference that losing the studio was “hard to swallow”.
“It was abandoned and we renovated it completely, respecting its original state,” Casabona told journalists at a press conference last month. “We have found someone prestigious and with enough money, who happens to be a direct descendant of the Picasso family, to potentially rent the building. They are not opposed to the CNEA staying. Negotiations are in hand.”
However, Alexandra Romano, chamber spokesperson, said no contact from any potential buyer or tenant had been received and insisted the eviction order stood. “They [CNEA] have been squatters for years. They have to go.” The association has appealed against the judgment upholding the eviction order. The Paris Court of Appeal will hear the case in September.
— © Guardian News & Media 2013