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Walking Around Montparnasse, Paris

The name was a bit of a joke, a sly reference to Mont Parnassas, the highest point near Delphi, mythic seat of the god Apollo and the Muses, inspiration of poetry and song.  The topography south of the Seine is considerably flatter than Delphi, but the high-minded notion matched the aspirations of the writers and painters who scrambled to Paris to follow their muse.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Montparnasse suffered the contractions and upheavals that changed parts of the right bank so radically during the 19th century.  When the boulevard construction directed by Baron  Haussmann churned neighborhoods on the right bank, Montparnasse was too sleepy to be included in the revamping.  The hidden neighborhoods, rustic stables and factory lofts offered quarters an artist could afford well into the 1960’s.  But then, the post World War II boom claimed low-rise blocks for office towers, shopping centers and transportation hubs, a process that accelerated during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Some of the artists’ hideaways in Montparnasse still exist, despite construction of office towers, roads and apartment complexes.  Recently, a friend and I discovered an impasse off Ave. du Maine, one of those dead-end alleys lined with artists’ studios and galleries.  We were in search of a photo exhibition announced in ‘Time Out Paris,’ but the show was still being hung and not yet open to the public.  Instead, we prowled along the passageway, peeking into vacant studios, eyeing the one used by a floral arranging business and wondering what type of social pull it took to rent one of these historic spots. Surely, we realized, this was the same artists’ courtyard at 21, Ave. du Maine where Marie Vassilieff opened her studio as a canteen for artists in 1915.  Vassilieff served soup, dinners, fellowship and a helping hand during the terrible war years.

La Ruche, Artists' Studios. Montparnasse, Paris

La Ruche, Artists’ Studios. Montparnasse, Paris

Another remnant still standing is the curious building called La Ruche.  An early artists’ collective, La Ruche, (‘the Hive’) hides in the rue de Dantzig  (Metro: Convention, 15th arr.) a studio-refuge for artists and artisans.  The space was inaugurated in 1902 by Alfred Boucher who had salvaged small round wooden structures made by Gustave Eiffel for the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition. The recycled wooden buildings were remade into miniscule studios stacked on top of each other.

Art Academies and Immigrants

Montparnasse was a neighborhood for art students, dealers and shops selling pigments and other supplies for the students enrolled in nearby art academies.  Henri Matisse opened an art academy in 1908 at 33 Blvd. des Invalides.  Matisse was a busy teacher, impresario and artists during those years.

The Colarossi School, established in the 1870’s, took over the Academy Suisse and moved to the courtyard of 10 rue de la Grande Chaumiere.  The Academy Julian differed from other art academies: women were admitted to the school and permitted to draw nude males in life study studio classes.

In the Studio. Academy Julian, Paris. by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

In the Studio. Academy Julian, Paris. by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

During the years of revolution, hardship and war, Paris provided the flame of salvation for Europe’s refugees.  As the city of light and reason, the city drew immigrants from troubled countries to the east, people fleeting from failing monarchies, war and repressive governments.

Some left the Russia and the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I.  During the war and following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the floodgates opened to immigrants.  An international wave of immigrants from dozens of countries arrived after the Armistice in November, 1918 bringing artists, sculptors, writers and political poets.  The international community settled in Montparnasse. A list of these artists reads like a museum collection: Chagall, Dobrinsky, Epstein, Rivera, Matisse, Leger, Modigliani, Laurencin. Some are lesser known:  Indenbaum and the Polish-born Moise Kisling form the nucleus of the Ecole de Paris, the melting pot of all the refugees and émigrés.

Writers who lived in Paris at the time note in their memoirs that  Montparnasse was different after World War I.  The streets were lit up with

theater and cinema marquees.  The “Triangle of Gold of Montparnasse,” as it was called, was marked by three beacon-cafes: La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde and Le Dome.

While the big cafes attracted big spenders, the artists hung out there too.   When La Coupole opened, people wandered in and out round the clock.  La Rotonde attracted art dealers, writers, journalists and politicians.  Modigliani frequented Le Dome café intent on selling drawings to anyone with money.  Henry Miller caged meals from friends who willingly bought him dinner for his entertaining conversation.

Paris Cafe. Photo ©  P. Mikelbank

Paris Cafe. Photo © P. Mikelbank

The cafes became second homes for the artists and writers who didn’t have the space, seats or heat to accommodate clutches of friends.  Exhibitions were organized in the cafes to attract customers and newspaper attention.  The first exposition in a cafe was organized by Auguste Clerge, in the Cafe du Parnasse.  At just about the same time, a group of artist friends organized a show in Montmarte and in a Latin Quarter cafe called la Comete.  Cafe Petit Napolitain mounted a show called “Boite a Couleurs” and another show was held at Cameleon.  Once these art shows in cafes proved the artists could make a little money and the cafe owners would increase traffic, other cafes followed suit.

In due time, dealers snapped up the work of the best artists.  One of the most successful gallery owners, Berthe Weill steadily expanded her clientele, befriending artists and clients in the grand cafes. At first working out of her home, she moved through successive stores in rue Victor Masse, rue Taitbout and rue Lafitte. Showing women artists as well as men, she celebrated her 25th anniversary in 1926 when her artists held a huge fete for her at Dagorno.

Zadkine Museum, 100 bis, rue d’Assas, in the 6th arrondisment, demonstrates that even as late as the 1920’s and 1930’s there were areas of Montparnasse with real gardens, stately trees and outbuildings.  Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine constructed a folly in the backyard atelier, his sylvan corner in the middle of Montparnasse.

The neighborhood revolved around the Gare Montparnasse.  Trains departing this station headed to Brittany so it’s no surprise that the artists who lived in Montparnasse turned to the Atlantic for en plein air painting during the 1880’s and afterwards.  The Bretons and other western country people brought their fish and victuals to the city.  Bistro de la Gare, 59 Blvd. Montparnasse dates to that time period, with Art Nouveau features that gave it a place on the historic monuments registry.