Every year on June 29, 2022, we celebrate “Day of the Little Prince” in memory of the birthday of French WWII pilot and acclaimed author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote and illustrated the masterpiece. ‘literary work, The little Prince. Translated into more than 500 languages and dialects, the semi-autobiographical short story is the most translated work of French literature in the world. For this year’s edition of “The Day of the Little Prince”, Olivier Rousteing, artistic director of the French fashion house Balmain and a big fan of the book, is launching the Le Petit Prince art competition on the theme: “It’s only with the heart that can be seen correctly”. To participate and win Little Prince prizes, all you have to do is send your creations – whether it is a drawing, a painting, a poem, a video or even a dance choreography – from this sentence that the fox pronounces to the Little Prince by sending an email to [email protected] or by posting directly on your social networks and tagging #lepetitprinceday before June 27e.
At the same time, the original manuscript of The little Prince is in France for the very first time, which includes drawings that failed to make it into the final book. A highlight of the permanent collection of the Morgan Library and Museum, it had never left New York due to the fragility of the onion skin paper on which it was written and illustrated. The exhibition “An encounter with the Little Prince” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which runs until June 26, 2022, presents more than 600 works, including the said manuscript, as well as watercolors, sketches, photographs, poems and letters. I sit down with Anne Monier Vanryb, curator of the modern and contemporary department at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris, to discuss the exhibition and the lasting legacy of The little Prince.
How was born the idea of the exhibition “A meeting with the Little Prince” and what is its objective?
I spoke with Alban Cerisier, co-curator of the exhibition, about the anniversary of The little Princeit is released in France (75 years in 2021), and we quickly imagined that it would be the perfect tribute to hold an exhibition. We started calling collectors and institutions and quickly realized that many people would be happy to participate in our project. We started working on the exhibition in November 2019, and it was supposed to open for the first time in April 2021. We are two curators, an assistant and a team of two for the production, but at least another dozen collaborators from the museum also worked on this exhibition.
Why has it taken almost 80 years since the first edition of The little Prince for the first major museum exhibition in France devoted to this masterpiece of French literature?
Many drawings and manuscripts are in various private collections; it’s hard work to collect all these works and organize this kind of exhibition.
How did you work with the French publisher Gallimard on this exhibition, and how did you select the more than 600 objects to present in the exhibition?
Alban Cerisier is Saint-Exupéry’s editor at Gallimard. Gallimard being the only French publisher of Saint-Exupéry, his help was invaluable in understanding the history of Saint-Exupéry and his works. We decided to have a chronological route, following the life of Saint-Exupéry, and chose photographs, letters, manuscripts and drawings along the way, all clues or pieces of what would later become The little Prince.
What does it mean to have the original manuscript of The little Prince featured in this exhibition, marking the first time he has traveled outside of the United States?
The little Prince is one of the most important works of French literature. It is a great honor to be able to exhibit it at the Museum of Decorative Arts. It was also absolutely necessary to explain how The little Prince was created and written, which is the purpose of the exhibition.
What are the other key pieces presented in this exhibition?
We show several scenes and characters that Saint-Exupéry did not keep in the final book. They give an idea of what The little Prince could have been, which is very interesting.
What are the unknown aspects of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the keys to understanding The little Prince what do you want to reveal through this exhibition?
Many French people don’t know The little Prince was written in the United States, during the war, when it is crucial to know it to fully understand the book. It’s supposed to be a children’s book, but it was written in the middle of the war by a man exiled from his country. Knowing all this, is it still an innocent children’s book?
The writings of Saint-Exupéry are inspired by his real adventures. Tell me how his 1935 accident in the Libyan desert with his mechanic André Prévot became the starting point for The little Prince.
His memories of this accident are, for example, full of foxes, which he saw while he was wandering in the desert after the accident, and this could be the starting point of the fox in The little Prince. Saint-Exupéry began to write The little Prince between 1941 and 1942. In the first pages of the book, he writes that he spent his life alone, without anyone to really talk to, until an accident in the desert six years earlier: this is really the point of departure to The little Prince!
Saint-Exupéry drew everywhere, on his letters and manuscripts and even while piloting planes. What was the place of drawing in his life?
His mother was a very good painter and taught him to draw. Drawing is a second language for him, as important as writing, but also the one that can link him to his childhood.
What were the main challenges in creating this exhibition?
Even for museum professionals, 650 objects is a lot of objects in an exhibition, and I am very proud of the design of our exhibition. Moreover, the drawings are very pale and delicate, and must be protected from light; it is a real challenge to show all these works as they deserve to be shown. The pandemic has also brought its share of uncertainties. The whole museum team is very happy to be able to show our work to the public.
Who is the target audience for the exhibition?
The exhibition is aimed at children and adults, but especially adults when they were little, as Saint-Exupéry writes in the dedication of The little Prince.