Every year on June 29, 2022, we celebrate “The Little Prince Day” in memory of the birthday of French WWII pilot and acclaimed author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who penned and illustrated the literary masterpiece, The Little Prince. Translated into more than 500 languages and dialects, the semi-autobiographical novella is the most translated work of French literature in the world. For this year’s edition of “The Little Prince Day”, Olivier Rousteing, creative director of French fashion house Balmain and a major fan of the book, launches The Little Prince artistic contest with the theme: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly”. To participate and win Little Prince prizes, all you have to do is send in your creations – be it a drawing, a painting, a poem, a video or even a dance choreography – based on this phrase that the fox utters to the Little Prince by emailing [email protected] or posting directly on your social media and tagging #lepetitprinceday by June 27th.
At the same time, the original manuscript of The Little Prince is in France for the first time ever, which includes drawings that failed to make it into the final book. A highlight of the permanent collection of the Morgan Library & Museum, it had never previously left New York City 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 Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, which runs until June 26, 2022, features more than 600 works, including said manuscript, together with watercolors, sketches, photographs, poems and letters. I sit down with Anne Monier Vanryb, curator of the modern and contemporary department at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, to discuss the show and the enduring legacy of The Little Prince.
How did the idea for the exhibition “An Encounter with the Little Prince” first come about and what is its aim?
I was talking with Alban Cerisier, who is the co-curator of the exhibition, about the anniversary of The Little Prince’s release in France (75 years in 2021), and we quickly imagined that it would be the perfect homage to hold an exhibition. We started to call collectors and institutions and understood quickly that a lot of people would be happy to take part in our project. We started to work on the exhibition in November 2019, and it was first supposed to open in April 2021. We are two curators, one assistant and a team of two for the production, but at least another dozen collaborators from the museum also worked on this exhibition.
Why did it take almost 80 years since the first edition of The Little Prince for the first major museum exhibition in France dedicated to this masterpiece of French literature to take place?
A lot of drawings and manuscripts are in various private collections; it is strenuous work to gather all these works and to organize this kind of exhibition.
How did you work together with 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 publisher at Gallimard. Since Gallimard has been Saint-Exupéry’s unique French publisher, his help was precious to understand the history of Saint-Exupéry and his works. We decided to have a chronological path, following Saint-Exupéry’s life, and chose photographs, letters, manuscripts and drawings along the way, all of them clues or pieces of what would later become The Little Prince.
What does it mean to have the original manuscript of The Little Prince displayed in this exhibition, marking the first time that it has traveled outside of the US?
The Little Prince is one of the most important works in French literature. It is a great honor to be able to show it at the Museum of Decorative Arts. It was also absolutely necessary in order to explain how The Little Prince was created and written, which is the goal of the exhibition.
What are some of the other highlight pieces presented in this exhibition?
We are showing 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 little-known aspects of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the keys to understanding The Little Prince that you aim to reveal through this exhibition?
A lot of French people don’t know that The Little Prince was written in the United States, during the war, whereas it is crucial to know that in order to fully understand the book. It is supposed to be a children’s book, but it was written in the middle of a war by a man exiled from his country. Knowing all that, is it still an innocent children’s book?
Saint-Exupéry’s writings were inspired by his real-life adventures. Tell me how his 1935 crash in the Libyan desert with his mechanic André Prévot became the starting point for The Little Prince.
His recollections of this accident are, for instance, full of foxes, which he saw while wandering in the desert after the crash, and that could be the starting point for the fox in The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry started to write The Little Prince between 1941 and 1942. In the first pages of the book, he writes that he has spent his life alone, without anyone to really talk to, until a crash in the desert six years earlier: it is really the starting point of The Little Prince!
Saint-Exupéry would draw everywhere, on his letters and manuscripts and even while piloting airplanes. What was the role of drawing in his life?
His mother was a very good painter and taught him how to draw. Drawing is for him a second language, as important as the written one, but also one that can link him to his childhood.
What were the main challenges of making this exhibition?
Even for museum professionals, 650 items is a lot of items in an exhibition, and I am very proud of our exhibition design. Moreover, the drawings are very pale and delicate, and must be protected from the light; it is a real challenge to show all these works the way they deserve to be shown. The pandemic also brought a lot of uncertainties. The entire museum team is very glad to be able to show our work to audiences.
Who is the target audience of the exhibition?
The exhibition is aimed at children and grown-ups but, most of all, grown-ups when they were children, as Saint-Exupéry wrote in the dedication of The Little Prince.