The Exhibition

The Exhibition

Exposition Barbara
du 13 octobre 2017 au 28 janvier 2018
Espace d’exposition – Philharmonie

This first exhibition at the Philharmonie de Paris on a female artist is an invitation to discover what it means to be a free woman—a woman who writes, composes, and performs—in the second half of the twentieth century.
Barbara, the muse of the Parisian cabaret years, got her big break when she was discovery by the Bobino music hall, and went on to sing on the greatest stages in Paris.
An exceptional artist, she became a legend, and her became extraordinary gatherings, where thunderous standing ovations were the norm, and the audience only dispersed after lengthy farewells.

The Barbara exhibition presents rare video archives primarily from the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA), allowing visitors to discover the multiple facets of this incomparable singer. Scribbled drafts showing many rewritings, personal correspondence, and other papers offer precious hints as to her writing process, how she turned her life and confidences into timeless songs.

Barbara was the subject of many magnificent photographs. The exhibition will present both rare and emblematic shots by a wide variety of photographers who were able to earn her trust, immortalizing her on stage or in more intimate settings, such as Just Jaeckin, Marcel Imsand, Jean-Pierre Leloir, Tony Frank, Jo Cayet, and Georges Dudognon…

Barbara carefully crafted her image, as her stage costumes attest. Newspapers and programmes reveal the context of the era, and insight into how she who managed to remain mysterious even in stardom was regarded, how she gave herself to the audience without unmasking herself.

Barbara on stage at the Mogador theatre, 1990 © Jean-François Carric

Curator and set design

The curator Clémentine Deroudille previously co-curated the Brassens ou la liberté exhibition at the Cité de la musique with Joann Sfar. She is also the author of the Brassens catalogue published by Dargaud in 2011. She is an avid researcher of audio archives and has curated several exhibitions. Her recent productions include a documentary film on her grandfather, Robert Doisneau, le révolté du merveilleux, broadcast on Arte in 2016.

Creating a set design conveying Barbara’s poetic universe was entrusted to two prominent figures in the field, Antoine Fontaine and Christian Marti, who had already worked together on the Brassens ou la liberté exhibition at the Cité de la musique in 2011.
Now recognised as one of the greatest set designers in film (with directors such as Claude Berri, Daniel Auteuil, Joann Sfar, Manoel de Oliveiran, etc.), Christian Marti began his career in stage design for singers, including Jacques Higelin and Barbara (for Lily Passion).
Antoine Fontaine has created a number of set designs for exhibitions. He became one of the great masters of painted decor with his murals for Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot and decors for Sophia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette, and has since created numerous opera decors.

Exhibition sequence

From Monique Serf to Barbara

“We should never return
To the hidden days of memories
Of the blessed days of our childhood”
Barbara and her brother, Jean, at Orry-la-ville, around 1930 © DR

How did Monique Serf (born 9 June 1930 in the 17th district of Paris), a poor Jewish girl marked by war and a devastating childhood, become the iconic artist Barbara who continues to be remembered and adored today?

Her autobiography Il était un piano noir, published shortly after her death, reveals the intimate tragedy of her childhood. The scars of trauma and the uprootedness of wandering from city to city offer a different perspective on some of her lyrics. Her youth was also marked by a vigorous desire to play piano and sing, and the discovery of Edith Piaf.

The Lock – preparatory drawing for the Barbara exhibition scenography, 2017
Scenography by Antoine Fontaine and Christian Marti

Following in the footsteps of her idols from the start of the century—Yvette Guilbert, Damia, Marie Dubas, and Marianne Oswald—Barbara began her singing career with concert tours in Brussels, where she moved on a whim at the age of 20. She then became a regular performer in the post-war cabarets of Paris, such as L’Écluse, a tiny 70-seat concert hall. “L’Écluse was the first home I found. It was a place with real heart, a family that took me into its fold. That is where I started to breathe, and where it all began.” There, Barbara became the “midnight singer”.

“I no longer feared anything. Driven by my obsessive desire – my certainty that I would sing one day – I would have walked through walls.”

Her “Petits zinzins” (1964-1969)

“My songs are from life […] they’re always about what I’ve experienced, what we’ve all experienced.”
Manuscript of the song Nantes by Barbara, 1963 © Collection Gilbert Sommier

These first successes brought her greater notice, and she eventually left the cabarets to sing at the Bobino music hall. She stopped singing other people’s work (Brel, Brassens) and began writing her own songs—compositions she called “petits zinzins,” with simple words, confidences delivered through song, a way of giving of herself without revealing herself. Barbara wrote and recorded prodigiously, fascinating all who heard her sing.

“Don’t interfere with my piano
Don’t interfere with my walls
Don’t interfere with my glasses
Don’t interfere with my gaze”

In the 1960s, she was swept up in endless tours throughout France. Surrounded by a small inner circle, Barbara lived on the road, giving almost 300 performances a year. Her tours with Serge Gainsbourg, Serge Reggiani, and Georges Moustaki also brought her abroad, to stages in Italy, Israel, Libya, etc.

“Barbara’s journey” © Luc Simon

The adventurer (1970-1981)

“Give me no orders,
I am queen of my island
I am a woman in my bed
I go wild in your cities
I have chosen my men
I have built my empires
To hell with reason
And long live my follies”

At the Olympia in 1969, Barbara made the astonishing announcement not that she was leaving the stage, but that she was ending her traditional singing career and tours. Guided by her intuitions and friendships, she tried her hand at theatre (unsuccessfully with Madame) and cinema, with Jacques Brel (Franz, 1972), Jean-Claude Brialy (L’Oiseau rare, 1973), and Maurice Béjart (Je suis né à Venise, 1977).

Her song “L’Aigle noir” propelled her to the status of a popular music artist, reaching a new audience and placing her on magazine covers. But as her popularity grew, Barbara increasingly shied away from the public eye. She imposed her artistic choices, such as the young François Wertheimer to compose “LaLouve”. She withdrew to the countryside, to her house in Précy-sur-Marne, which became her refuge, a place where she was free and could create. This is where she conceived her shows and composed her songs until the end of her life.

Barbara in her garden in Précy-sur-Marne, Autumn 1989 © Marcel Imsand, Association Barbara Perlimpinpin

The legend (1981-1997)

“Pantin hope, Pantin happiness
Oh, what have you done to me?
Pantin laughing, Pantin leaving me in tears
Pantin, we’ll do it again!”
Barbara on stage at the Mogador theatre, 1990 © Jean-François Carric

With her 1981 concerts in the 2000-seat circus tent in Pantin, a show she had created and crafted in Précy, Barbara was elevated to legendary status. After years of silence, her come-back was spectacular, based on her new model for singing tours—the first "concert shows”. Her voice had changed, but her communion with the audience was stronger than ever.

Always driven by the desire to reinvent herself, Barbara worked with Gérard Depardieu to create the musical Lily Passion; she spent five years on the project, unperturbed by the possibility of alienating her audience. As she avoided interviews and public appearances, her concerts became mythic: Châtelet in 1987 and 1993, Mogador in 1990…

Unbeknownst to the public, Barbara discretely joined the effort to fight AIDS, working with patients and associations and visiting and performing in prisons. She was also politically active, campaigning for the election of François Mitterrand in 1988 with Jacques Higelin.

Barbara recorded her last album in 1996 and died on 23 November 1997.

During her last concert in Tours, on March 26th 1994 © Raphaël-Didier de l’Hommel