- The Cradle of Modern Art
"Love is when the desire to be desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it."
Henri Toulouse Lautrec
If you have a romantic bone in your body you'll no doubt want to spend more than a little time wandering around in the district of Montmartre. It's the heart of the Paris that you fantasise about falling in love in and in spite of it's major pull for tourists it still has a lot of genuine Parisian charm. This is perhaps because it's still firmly a residential area.
From medieval times to the eighteenth century Montmartre was a village of sorts, a community that sprang up around the chalk mines, vineyards and mills of the Hill of Martyrs. And there was industry in the form of the large community of Nuns in the Abbey that then crowned the hill. They produced two varieties of wine, a fine one to sell to Parisians and a cheap one to sell to the locals. The locals were grateful.
Montmartre became a big residential area when Napoleon the Third decided to clean up the city of Paris in the 1860's. Much like urban regeneration projects now, Napoleon and his chief architect Baron Hausmann moved les Miserables out of the city centre and flattened the slums to create expensive houses that the locals couldn't afford. The result was a beautiful city centre with wide avenues, elegant buildings and posh flats. The well to do moved into the centre and the workers moved out to suburbs like Montmartre. Montmarte quickly became a bustling district outside the city limits of Paris where laws were relaxed and rent was cheap. It became a melting pot of immigrants, workers, entertainers, prostitutes, pimps, artists and some people who managed to be all six of those things at once.
Artists of every shade were drawn to the area and it was in the 1860's that the first major art revolution kicked off here in the form of the great impressionist painters. They came for the cheap living, the social life and the aesthetic beauty of the area. And after a time they came simply to be part of the scene, to work in a place where they could strike sparks at any café table and get instant critique from their peers. Where they could argue passionately till all hours of the morning about form and colour and such things as concern great painters. They were the Society of Midnight and this was the 'Fin de Siecle' They were the children of the revolution, as gloriously romanticized by the Australian director Baz Luhrmann.
For centuries the art world in France had been dominated by the Academie des beaux arts and it's annual art show The Salon. The salon was a very conservative, academic show that proscribed what exactly was considered good painting and ruled out any possibility of experimentation in art. In particular the intellectuals of the Academie had a slavish obsession with realism in painting. They regarded photorealism and no visible brushstrokes as the bywords of excellence in art. But the flourishing of the new technology of actual photography left some painters wondering where to go next. Radicals began experimenting and rebelling against The Salon. It was the start of a journey that goes all the way from Monet to Andy Warhol: the story of Modern Art.
It was here in Montmarte that Impressionism flourished among a small society of rebel painters unofficially led by Edouard Manet and followed by artists like Renoir and Monet. You can recognize impressionist work by the way it deals with light and brushstrokes. They used short thick sketchy strokes of the brush and vivid, bright colours to paint their scenes. They learned a lot of new things about how light behaves and reflects from object to object so you can see fantastic light effects in their work but no sharp edges to anything.
"There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another."
They were criticized as being unfinished paintings or mere impressions. They loved the term and adopted it as a badge of defiance.
After the impressionists successes in the 60's the game was wide open for further exploration and a whole plethora of little movements grew up around the Montmartre cafes. The next generation of Montmartre bohemians grew up in the wake of the Monets and Manets and Montmartre reached it's peak as 'the place to be' in the 1890's.
And the hippest place to be living was the Bateau Lavoir, the Laundry Boat, where the biggest star of them all happened to live, Pablo Picasso.
"Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs."
The Laundry Boat was one of several artists communes in Montmartre where groups of starving bohemians could share the burden of rent and huddle round a candle to keep warm. Frequently running out of money to buy paints or even food the painters would trade their work with the local cafes for bar tabs and food. Picasso once traded one of his Harlequins for a meal, a painting that would now be worth a couple of million dollars. It was at the Bateau lavoir that Picasso and his contemporaries Georges Braque and Juan Gris thrashed out the ideas of cubism, one of the first truly abstract forms of painting. Their aim was to paint objects as the mind perceived them not as they appeared to the eye.
But being a starving artist was not all about being holed up in the studio. When the brushes were put down the artists hit the cafes and the cabarets along with all the other waifs and strays of Parisian society and it was at these venues that the really explosive discussions, duels and love affairs were played out. For Picasso and his friends it was the Lapin Agile that drew them in many an evening. It was originally called the assassins club but in the 1875 an artist called Gill painted a sign for the club featuring a rabbit. The witty bohemians renamed the club 'Lapin a Gill' meaning Gill's rabbit but of course it also means 'The agile rabbit'. The club, on rue de Saules, is still open now if you feel like taking a drink at one of the scenes of the birth of avant-garde art.
Another group of artists calling themselves the Hydropathes adopted a café called 'Le Chat Noir as their base of operations. Le Chat Noir was set up by a satirical comedian and local impresario called Rodolphe Salis. It became the venue of a popular cabaret that featured stand up comedy, protest songs, mime artists, poetry reading and a fantastic shadow puppet theatre spectacle. The café produced its own magazine that was put together by a whole range of bohemian artists and writers and one of the Chat Noir regulars Emile Goudeau went on to organize a wider group called the hydropaths who also published an art journal and formalized relationships between artists and cafes as a hub and place to showcase work.
Picture the audience crammed into the little café watching the latest shadow play in awed silence, you can probably make out, somewhere in the crowd, the diminished and mustachioed figure, of a very drunk Toulouse Lautrec. Toulouse was the Montmartre bohemian of Montmartre bohemians. He was in love with the place, in love with the cabaret and most of all in love with the show girls.
Virtually all of his paintings are of montmartre cafes, cabarets and local heroes. And it's through his work that we get the most vivid idea of what the time was like. Like all the montamartre artists he was fond of the relatively new magic potion, Absinthe. And he drank it most often at the Moulin Rouge. Sometimes he would sit at the bar with a sketchbook and drink alone, getting material for the next days painting. At other times he would be there with his friends, who included most of the local singers and dancers and none other than Oscar Wilde. Now there's a night out and a half. Oscar Wilde was captivated by the Absinthe experience and he wrote that
"The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things."
Toulouse carried an emergency supply around in a hollow walking cane, Alfred Jarry painted himself green in homage to the drink and Verlaine used to say "I take sugar with it." Instead of saying hello. Picasso and Vin Gogh were also prolific users. The artists believed that absinthe gave them inspiration, and this was in part due to the presence of a psychoactive drug called Thujone. Thujone is found in Absinthes main ingredient Wormwood, the herb that gives absinthe it's bitter licquorice taste.
Absinthe became so popular that the onset of evening became known by locals as the 'green hour' when the cafes would fill with wild eyed eccentrics solemnly performing the sugar burning ritual of preparing their dose of the Green Fairy. And it was the first liquor that had an advertising campaign directed at women, leading to the first scenes of mixed gender groups of drinkers getting off their heads together. But Absinthe was a cruel muse and Toulouse suffered from alchoholism that eventually led to a breakdown. Oh and don't order one at the bar because it's still illegal in France.
The Moulin Rouge itself was a hugely popular establishment at this time and of course the birthplace of the legendary Can-Can dance. There was absinthe flowing at the bar and opium smoking available inside a giant elephant and of course sex. But there were also a whole range of more twisted acts like that of 'La Petomain' a gentleman who entertained the crowd with his ability to fart loudly at will. And there were various themes including nights when the staff dressed as devils and served drinks by ordering the customer to "Drink it you wretch!"
Toulouse's favourite dancer and the queen of Zidler's 'diamond dogs' was a Montmartre superstar known as 'La Goulue'. The name translates to 'The Glutton' and she was so called because she would frequently take a punters drink from his hand and down it in one. She was famed for her sassy behaviour and wild dancing and she could high kick a man's top hat from his head among other talents. She earned extra cash by posing for local painters and she did so for many of Toulouse's works. At the height of her fame she tried to cross over to mainstream success and funded her own touring show. It failed and the show was closed down, and Louise Weber disappeared from the public eye to drown in depression and alchoholism. She ended up selling cigarettes on the street corners of Montmartre, unrecognizable to her former fans.
Weber is buried in the Cimetiere de Montmarte along with many of the districts heroes and heroines.
It's easy to imagine how exciting it was to be here at the 'fin de siecle'. Virtually all of the art and literary ideas that you would find in any café conversation are now commonplace in our time. They are present in our magazines, architecture, TV, films and typography and here in the 1890's they were all brand new ideas. But it was the best of times and the worst of times. More of the stories of the bohemians ended in tragedy than not and the music hall stars, artists, writers, ballerinas, singers, Can Can dancers that lived here were always only a step away from destitution.
Now you'll find rather more well-fed artists plying their trade in the Place de Tertre offering portraits in the style of various old masters. The Moulin Rouge is something of a tourist trap and the Lapin Agile is more like a site of pilgrimage than a bohemian café. But you can see pictures of old Montmartre and it's many windmills at the Musee de Montmartre on Rue de Cortot. There are also lots of little places where you can see some old French nightclub singing of an evening. And for those of you who fell in love with the movie 'Amelie' then you should go to the Rue Lepic and see if you recognize a certain café there.