Discovering Paul Éluard at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Denis

Located in the city of Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, not far from the famous Stade de France, is the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Éluard. It is impossible to miss the building if you walk down Rue Gabriel Péri. From the moment I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the complex. In front of me stood a building, topped by a dome, and preceded by a peristyle with four columns, reminiscent of Greek buildings. The inscription « Justice de Paix” could be read on it. I was astonished, as I did not expect the museum to be in the buildings of the Old Carmel of Saint-Denis. Good first impression. To access the museum and discover the Paul Éluard collection, I took the path on the left. My group and I met with a curator who would tell us all about the precious collection.

Photographs of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Éluard de Saint-Denis.

As a reminder, Paul Éluard (1895-1952) was a French poet who was born in Saint-Denis and made a gift for his collection to the local museum in 1951 the year before he died, hence the Fonds Paul Éluard which has been on display ever since his death. He was part of the surrealist movement and wrote politically engaged poems, mostly about love and resistance. His most famous works are “Mourir de ne pas mourir” (1924), “La Courbe de tes yeux” (1926) and “Liberté” (1942). The Paul Éluard collection at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Denis consists largely of works on paper: poems, letters, first editions, drawings. The tour reconstitutes his life. It highlights the man behind the poet: his links with Saint-Denis, his family, his youth, his personal items. 

On the ground floor, the curator first led us into a room where we were greeted by a statue. Made of bronze with a green and gold plate, it was created by the Russian-born French sculptor, Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), as a tribute to the writer. The statue represents Éluard in an allegorical way. It is a half-human, half-plant creature. On his body, we can read some stanzas of “Liberté” (1942).

Statue made by Ossip Zadkine between 1964-1968 as a tribute to Paul Éluard. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Éluard de Saint-Denis.

We then took a staircase that led us to the top floor in a dark room with blue painted walls. The room was rectangular in shape. On each side were cabinets with drawers containing paper documents. Two photographs could be seen hanging from the ceiling. The first one was of a young Paul Éluard. This was rather “surprising” because when one thinks of the poet, one does not immediately visualize him as a teenager. The second one was hanging on the wall, at the back of the room, and was of a much older man sitting at his desk. Incidentally, the same desk, the ordinal piece of furniture of the poet, was displayed right in front.

Photograph of Paul Eluard as a teenager.
A room in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Denis in which is exposed the writer’s desk.

In this blue room, we learned about the first part of Éluard’s life. He was born and raised in Saint-Denis. His youth revolved around the First World War and writing. At that time, he was very productive, but unfortunately, many of his works were burned. It was also during this period that he met his first wife, Gala. The curator concluded this first part by introducing us an illustration of the iconic poem “Liberté”, created by French painter Fernand Léger. Published clandestinely in 1942 and translated into more than ten languages, “Liberté” is a mythical work. It has universal values, which makes it one of the fundamental texts of French poetic heritage. In addition, it is a poem that is often studied when learning French, as the words used in the text are truly simple. The museum has a version of the poem in Indonesian, which added a fun touch to the visit.

Illustration of the “Liberté” poem by Fernand Léger, in 1953. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Éluard de Saint-Denis.

I found this first room interesting, mostly because of the curator and her comments. With the help of the paper documents in the drawers, she was able to give us essential information about the poet, which gave me a better idea of who he was, as a young man. However, I must admit that I am not a big fan of the drawer system. Even if I know that it is related to the conservation of paper documents, as an individual visitor, I think I would simply not dare touch a piece of furniture in the museum, for fear of damaging it. Moreover, I thought there were very few object labels or wall panels. Although the room was small, I believe there was enough space on the wall to put some explanatory text. Therefore, it is essential to book a visit with a curator to fully understand the life of the poet as it is not easy to access the documents on one’s own.

After this first room, we went down to the first floor, a slightly brighter room with display cases on one side of the walls. This room told the story of the second part of his life, through his relationships with lovers and friends. The showcases contained some of his personal objects: photographs of the women in his life, Gala, Nusch and Dominique, a photograph of him and his friend Pablo Picasso, letters he wrote, excerpts of poems, drawings. The room also focused on his role as a member of the Resistance. The visit of this second and last room ended with the presentation of two drawings made by the French illustrator Jean Effel, on the death of the poet. 

Once again, thanks to the curator’s comments, I was able to appreciate this second part of the tour. She knew how to share with us sympathetic anecdotes, and to bring the poet back to life, in a way. In my opinion, she made him more human. Listening to her words, I no longer saw Paul Éluard as a poet but as a man, with feelings and weaknesses. Nevertheless, I regret that there were not more exhibits. I know that museums do not exhibit their entire collection, for various technical reasons, but I would have liked to see more. I would also have liked to have more objects about Paul Éluard, and not just about him and his friends. I have the impression that sometimes items were exhibited to fill a void, which I found a pity…

To put in a nutshell, The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Denis is definitely worth a visit if you are in the city. First, because the buildings are magnificent and will take you back in time. Secondly, because the Paul Éluard collection is interesting but make sure to be accompanied by a curator so as not to miss your visit! Finally, because it is addressed to a large public: adults, fans, academics, archivists, bibliomaniacs… For more general information, check out the museum’s website: https://musee-saint-denis.com.

Alexia Lam

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