Recently, when I was in Paris, I visited the Bon Marché store, which is a regular haunt of mine. I usually head directly to the top floor where they have a very excellent librarie/bookshop. I love to browse there and to see what is being published in French and also who has been translated into French. During my last visit, I chanced upon this title, LIBERTY, which is not a book as such but an illustrated poem. The poem was written by Paul Éluard, published clandenstinely in 1942 – during the German occupation of France – and, later, illustrated by the artist Fernand Léger. I was intrigued and bought it instantly. My plan is to frame it and hang it on the wall. When I took it from its box and it opened like a concertina, I found alongside it, an excellent history of the poem’s destiny which is a tale in itself.
The poem, Liberty, was taught in schools. It was adapted to a song and recited in cinemas. It symbolised La Résistance and indeed the fight against all forms of oppression. It was passed on, hand to hand, across America and Europe, recited on the radio and learnt by heart by many of the RAF parachutists. It brought hope to a country and a people living under the oppression of Vichy and the German occupation.
In 1952 when Paul Éluard died, his editor friend, publisher and fellow resistance fighter, Pierre Seghers, wanted to honour his lost friend. It was then that Seghers approached Éluard very good friend, Leger, and asked him to illustrated the poem to be printed as a homage to a man who always used his poetry to fight for Liberty, Freedom.