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News: Candide at 250: Scandal and Success

October 28, 2009

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Voltaire’s tale of the youth Candide’s trials, travels, and misadventures as he searches for his beloved Cunegonde was a publishing sensation in Europe in 1759. The satirical treatments of religion, sexuality, and authority made Candide both a target of censorship by 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 both anonymous and famous, adapted into various other art forms, and canonized as an outstanding contribution to both French and world literature. 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 dynamic exhibition commemorates the 250th anniversary of Candide through a wide variety of materials from The New York Public Library’s holdings, 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 all 17 of the known 1759 editions of Candide. The exhibition also features literary works influenced or inspired by Candide; illustrated editions of the book from the 18th to the 21st centuries; materials relating to the original 1956 Broadway production of Candide, 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. Materials on loan from other institutional and private collections include the original manuscript of Candide, from the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

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, the Library’s President, Paul LeClerc, himself a Voltaire scholar, reflects on the transformative power of this single work on his own career, his personal collection of illustrated editions of Candide, and his work to bring The Martin J. Gross Collection to the Library. Musical selections of a range of artists interpreting Bernstein’s Candide enhance the gallery experience.