In Montmartre: A book review by Bob Morris

In MonmartreIn Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art
Sue Roe
Penguin Press (2-15)

A lively story of unknown artists with “closely overlapping lives” who have since become household names

Many years ago, there was a CBS Radio series called “You Are There” that later became a television series hosted by Walter Cronkite. He returned in time to an especially significant event in history to provide an eyewitness account of, for example, John Cassavetes as Plato in The Death of Socrate, James Dean as Robert Ford (outlaw) in The Capture of Jesse James, Paul Newman as Marcus Brutus in The Assassination of Julius Caesar and as Nathan Hale in The Fate of Nathan Hale, Jeanette Nolan as Sarah Bernhardt in The Final Performance of Sarah Bernhardt, Kim Stanley as Cleopatra in The Death of Cleopatra, Rod Steiger as Richard Burbage in The First Command Performance of Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice Straight as Anne Boleyn in The Crisis of Anne Boleyn, and Joanne Woodward in The Oklahoma Land Rush.

I commend Roe on her consummate skills that enable her to transport her reader back in time to early- 20th century Paris much as Woody Allen for those who see his film, Midnight in Paris, to the years there after the First World War. Pablo Picasso was probably the gravitational center of the culture before that war but even his dominant personality could not subdue, only enhance, the charm and historical significance of Montmartre’s cafes and cabarets, galleries and studios, shops and private homes during the first decade of the 2oth century. She really made me feel as if I were there in the milieu. I could almost hear her voice assure, “all things are as they were then, except you are there! ”

As Roe explains, “The cross-fertilization of painting, writing, and music and dance produced a panorama of activity characterized by the early works of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and Modigliani, the appearance of the Ballet Russes and the salons of Gertrude Stein.” These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Roe’s coverage:

o Montmartre village (Pages xiii-xvi)
o Henri Matisse (17-23,55-56, 107-113, and 169-171)
o André Dorain (18-19 and 105-113)
o Pablo Picasso (23-25, 36-39, 56-58, 78-81, 87-94, 157-162, and 270-274)
o Picture sellers in Montmartre village (28-35)
o Paul Cézanne (31-33 and 204-206)
o Maurice Vlaminck (43-48, 85-86, 111-112, and 246-248)
o Georges Braque (61-68, 81-82, 178-179, 237-238, and 243-246))
o Serge Diaghilev (69-70, 204-206, and 303-304)
o Bateau-Lavoir (75-79, 140-141, 154-155, and 179-180)
o Gertrude Stein (97-00 and 134-140)
o Amedeo Modigliani (142-148 and 208-210)
o Picasso and Matisse (154-155 and 175-177)
o Gauguin’s influence on Picasso (160-161)
o Salon d’Automne (204-206 and 303-304
o Ballet Russes (258-262 and 286-289)

There is a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area here in Dallas at which merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer three excepts from Rose’s narrative that are representative of her skills:

o “The real revolution in the arts first took place not, as is commonly supposed, in the 1920s, to the accompaniment of the Charleston, black jazz, and mint juleps, but more quietly and intimately, in the shadow of the windmills — artificial and real — and in the cafés and cabarets of Montmartre during the first decade of the twentieth century. The unknown artists who gathered there and lived closely overlapping lives are

o “There had always been painters in Montmartre; its reputation as the centre of artistic life dated back to the reign of Louis VI, who was a great supporter if the arts. (Montmartre appears in records dating back to the twelfth century.) The Abbey of Montmartre founded under his rule and built on the site now occupied by St. Peter’s Church, between the Place du Tertre and the Sacré Coeur, attracted generous donations, earning Paris the title of ‘Ville de Lettres’. Montmartre’s reputation had originally been founded not on prostitutes but on nuns, some of whom achieved sainthood.” (Page 15)

o “‘What I am searching for, [Modigliani] wrote in one of his sketchbooks, ‘is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious, the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human race’. The new go0al for the modern artists was to find ways of expressing the interior life. In their own way, Picasso and Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, Diaghilev and Poiret, Marie Laurencin and Gertrude Stein were all by now engaged in this quest.” (211)

o “The struggles of a few dedicated, near-destitute artists working in the broken-down shacks and hovels of rural Montmartre seemed to have created the foundation for the wider arena of modern art. In retrospect, the bohemian world of the artists in Montmartre in the first decade of the century may be seen as a kind of living [begin italics] parade [end italics], a brief, dynamic, entertaining drama containing all the seeds of the main, twentieth- century show — and all the fun of the fair.” (312)

Sue Roe provides a superb Bibliography to which I presume to add David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Gabrieller Selz’s Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, Anne Sinclair’s My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Famliy Memoir of Art and War, and Paul Durand-Ruel: Memoir of the First Impressionist Art Dealer (1831-1922) co-authored by Flavie Durand-Ruel and Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel.

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