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Religious Blasphemy, Political Dissent, Violence, and Sex: The New York Public Library Surveys 250 Years of a Publishing Sensation

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Candide at 250: Scandal and Success on view from October 23, 2009 to April 25, 2010

The only known manuscript of Candide, Voltaire’s enduringly popular philosophical tale, is one of the treasures on view in Candide at 250: Scandal and Success, an exhibition at The New York Public Library examining the extensive influence and unique journey of Voltaire’s legendary work. The exhibition includes all 17 of the known 1759 editions of the work. The exhibition will be on view at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from October 23, 2009 to April 25, 2010. Admission is free. Candide at 250 has been organized by the Library’s President, Dr. Paul LeClerc, a noted Voltaire scholar, and curated by Alice Boone, a doctoral candidate specializing in 18th-century literature at Columbia University.  

“Candide is a wicked, and wickedly funny satire with dozens of targets. But beneath its deceptively light-hearted surface lies a profound inquiry into how humanity should best understand, and cope with, evil in the world,” Dr. LeClerc said. “Voltaire was the first writer to enjoy in his lifetime a celebrity that spanned continents. He was, in effect, the first literary rock star. But I think he would have been surprised that, out of the 2,000 different works he published, it would be Candide that entered the canon of the great works of Western literature.”

Voltaire’s tale of how Candide—young, naïve, and not-too bright—endures a series of trials, travels, and misadventures as he searches for his beloved Cunegonde was a publishing sensation in Europe in 1759. Some 20,000 copies were printed in that year alone, conferring its status as bestseller in the context of that era. The satirical treatments of religion, sexuality, and authority made Candide both a target of censorship by Parlement of Paris and the Vatican as well as a hugely popular underground success. Over the centuries, the tale has been imitated, augmented with further adventures, illustrated more than a hundred times by artists anonymous and famous, adapted into various other art forms, translated in all the major languages of the world, and canonized as an outstanding contribution to both French and world literature.

Candide has always had a sensational publication history,” said Alice Boone, curator of the exhibition. “Many authors, visual artists, and playwrights have courted controversy as they've adapted Candide, or been inspired by it. This exhibition illuminates how Candide is an engine for debate about the most contentious ideas of its time and ours. Over the centuries, its readers have always used its adaptability to refashion debates with satire and picaresque zaniness.”

The history of Candide is a history of widespread public reading, reflecting the ways in which a public consumes a book and transforms it. Authors, artists, playwrights, and other readers have been inspired by Voltaire’s cunning commentary on 18th-century French society and have reinterpreted the story in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, both World Wars, colonial expansion and independence, the sexual revolution, and even the current Iraq war.

This exhibition commemorates Candide’s 250th anniversary through a wide variety of materials from The New York Public Library’s collections, including The Martin J. Gross Collection of Voltaire and His Contemporaries Rousseau and Diderot. This world-class collection, part of the Rare Book Division, includes the 17 of the known 1759 editions of Candide. The New York Public Library is one of only two libraries in the world to possess all 17 editions; the other is the Bodleian at Oxford University.  The exhibition also features literary works influenced or inspired by the book; illustrated editions from the 18th to the 21st centuries; materials relating to the original 1956 Broadway production, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and subsequent revivals; and contemporary translations and adaptations of the book into other art forms, among them modern dance, film, and graphic novel. Also on view are materials on loan from other institutional and private collections. The original manuscript of Candide, also known as the La Valliere manuscript, is on loan from the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Voltaire’s briefcase, which could have once held the manuscript, is on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum.

A digital presentation compares various artists’ interpretations of two famous episodes from the book: Candide’s shooting of amorous monkeys and his questioning of his mentor’s philosophy of optimism. In a brief video, Dr. LeClerc reflects on the transformative power of this single work. The gallery experience is enhanced by audio excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording of Candide.

Candide at 250: Scandal and Success will be on view from October 23, 2009 through April 25, 2010 in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery (first floor) at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Admission is free. For exhibition hours or more information, call 212-ASK-NYPL or visit www.nypl.org.  
 
Support for this exhibition has been provided by Mr. Martin J. Gross and Air France. Additionally, special support for the Martin J. Gross Collection has been provided by Martin J. Gross, Barbara L. Goldsmith, and Robert W. Wilson.

Support for The New York Public Library's Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Mahnaz Ispahani and Adam Bartos, Jonathan Altman, and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

About The New York Public Library 
The New York Public Library was created in 1895 with the consolidation of the private libraries of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox with the Samuel Jones Tilden Trust. The Library provides free and open access to its physical and electronic collections and information, as well as to its services. Its renowned research collections are located in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; and the Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison Avenue. Eighty-seven branch libraries provide access to circulating collections and a wide range of other services in neighborhoods throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. Research and circulating collections combined total more than 50 million items. In addition, each year the Library presents thousands of exhibitions and public programs, which include classes in technology, literacy, and English for speakers of other languages. All in all The New York Public Library serves more than 17 million patrons who come through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org.

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Contact: Jennifer Lam  212.592.7708 | jennifer_lam@nypl.org

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