Dominique Zehrfuss on 28 Paradises
28 Paradises is the marriage of prose and painting by Nobel-prize winning author Patrick Modiano and his partner, the illustrator Dominique Zehrfuss. 28 Paradises is a rare book: it reveals not only the individual talents of the authors, but also the depth of the couple’s creative union. Sensitively translated into English for the first time by Damion Searls, the book captures the exquisite sadness of waking from a beautiful dream. There are twenty-eight dreams in this book, or perhaps one dream in twenty-eight parts—visions of paradise imagined by Zehrfuss during a time of deep sadness. Captured first in Zehrfuss’s brightly colored gouaches, each paradise was then refashioned as a poem by Modiano.
Dominique, what inspired the paintings in 28 Paradises?
The inspiration for these paradises came one August. Patrick [Modiano] and I felt a bit lost, abandoned in the empty city of Paris, with only pigeons around. We had received very sad news that a young man we knew had comitted suicide. One afternoon, without really thinking, I began to paint a small paradise, perhaps to imagine that somewhere there was a world where one could be happy, and safe, surrounded by seas and forests...
How did the idea for a book come about?
Having seen me painting these twenty-eight paradise miniatures, Patrick suggested he write a poem. I was thrilled—we had done two children’s books together before, about a labrador called Choura, and had hoped they would be a success, like Barbar. But after two books, the series ended. Patrick looked at my paradises in his hypnotic way, and after a few days, he brought me a poem which I took for a love letter.
Why did you decide to paint in miniature?
I have always been obsessed with small things, small worlds, where one could hide easily. This is probably why I once made a miniature museum, with all the tiniest things I could find; it’s also why, in parallel to my drawings, I chose to become a jewelry designer. Since I was a child, I’ve been inspired by imagery that is disturbing and strange. I’m drawn to the work of Hieronymous Bosch and enchanted by Henri Rousseau’s paintings.
How do you and Patrick work together?
Since our twenties, Patrick and I have worked side by side. At that time he worked at night, and I was always drawing beside him—we had a desk and a drawing table in the same room. Nobody talked, and in the silent night we would do our work, each of us in their own world. We remember these times in Montmartre with emotion. Naturally, when you start making miniatures, you can’t stop.
How does 28 Paradises sit with the rest of your work? Does it suggest new realms of possibility to you?
After the 28 paradises, I painted 28 hells, and I was honored when our daughter Marie—a poet, songwriter and singer—agreed to write a poem about my hells, which was harder for her than paradises! Then, in 2017, I painted 28 miniature landscapes with 28 animals, and asked my friend, the novelist Marie N’Diaye, if she would write about them. The poem she wrote is called 28 Beasts: A Love Song. Now, I’m working on a new “28” series, and we’ll see what happens.
Image: 28 Paradises, 2019. Photo by Kyle Knodell