In the early decades of the century, Montparnasse – named after the mountain home of Apollo and the muses – saw a concentration of artistic talent so vibrant that the quarter’s myth came to rival that of its ancient namesake. Struggling young painters and sculptors from all over the world were drawn to its ateliers. At dusk they filled the cafés, cadging drinks and boasting. If they were flush, they moved on to headier pleasures like a Dadaist play, a fancy-dress ball or a raucous supper at the Closerie de Lilas. But with World War II, the feast moved on, and today the neighborhood holds only echoes of old glory. Those seeking the essence of the 14th arrondissement will have better luck in the 7th, at the Espace Electra’s excellent “Les Heures Chaudes de Montparnasse.”
Wonderful works by Lempicka, Modigliani, Man Ray and others hang at the show, but it is less a celebration of art than of the atmosphere that generated it. The era’s avant-garde theater and literary activities come to life in displays and videos. So do fascinating characters from the margins of art history, like the Japanese Leonard Foujita, whose liveliest canvas was his own figure.
Sculptors were first attracted to Montparnasse in the 19th century. Its wide-open spaces allowed for large studios on the ground floor – a necessity when hauling marble and bronze. After a Métro line was laid in from Montmartre, artists like Picasso jumped ship from the Bateau Lavoir and other studios on the Butte to settle in the modern new neighborhood. Montparnasse’s reputation as a bohemian center grew, and creative souls from around the world found a haven there. America’s “Lost Generation” staked out territory in the cafés, as did Norwegians, Germans, Dutch and Russians. Soon the numbers were so great, the artists referred to themselves as the Horde.
The poorest among the newcomers, particularly the Russians, settled in the colony known as La Ruche, or beehive, in the Passage de Dantzig. This circular complex, made up of disused structures from the Exposition Universelle of 1889, was purpose-built for indigent artists. The sculptor Antoine Bourdelle oversaw it and acted as a benevolent landlord. La Ruche never quite lived up to its Utopian ideal – the sculptor Ossip Zadkine described it as a “sinister brie cheese, where every artist had a piece; a studio which began at a point and ended at a large window.” All the same, it sheltered many of the greatest names of the day, including Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi.
From around 1910 to the onset of WWII, these studios and others nearby were host to a colorful patchwork of cubism, futurism, expressionism, realism and folkloric fantasy, the lot often loosely clustered under the banner “School of Paris.” Most of the newcomers were deeply influenced by the work of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, but aesthetics was not the only inspiration. At the dawn of the modern age, many were enraptured by the machine and all it implied of power and speed. The most striking painting in the Espace Electra is Tamara de Lempicka’s “Les Deux Amies,” figures that seem less flesh and blood than assemblies, painted versions of Fritz Lang’s female icon in “Metropolis.” Similarly, the jutting grace of Chana Orloff’s bronze of a dancing couple seems to have been crafted in a slipstream.
Artistic women were not unusual in Montparnasse. Just a few generations earlier, Berthe Morisot was forbidden to sketch at the Louvre unaccompanied. A photograph at the Electra exhibition shows her latter-day counterparts side by side with the men in the studios, squinting at the burly nude on the platform. As bourgeois conventions slipped away, so too did the borders between artist, model and party girl. In Man Ray’s portrait, Meret Oppenheim wears nothing much but a few streaks of machine oil. Audacious, yes, but far less than her own greatest work, the emblem of surrealism, the “Fur Teacup.”
This was the era of the first supermodel. Like many of those today, Kiki of Montparnasse needed only a first name. And she too eventually expanded her franchise by singing, writing a memoir and creating her own artwork. In the meantime, just about every artist of note painted her. Moisei Kisling’s portrait in the show is lush but does not convey her formidable charms – she had to be seen to be appreciated. Brassai called her a “fascinating flower sprung up from the Paris cobblestones, [who] radiated seductiveness, life . . . quite naturally she became the undisputed queen of that kingdom of freedom and frankness that was Montparnasse at its height.”
Kiki came to a sad end. The Queen of Montparnasse died a bloated and garish caricature, like the many who, in Brassai’s words, indulged in “Montparnasse poison – which acted like a stimulant in small doses but was fatal in large ones.” For Modigliani, the morning after was particularly sad. A bon-vivant dandy from Livorno, given to reciting Dante from memory in the Luxembourg Gardens, he made an immediate reputation for himself with his languorous portraits and brawls. But his constitution was not strong. After a night of exposure to terrible weather, coming upon years of hard drinking and nagging tuberculosis, he fell sick and died at age 36. His bereft lover, expecting his child, threw herself out of a window to join him.
The manic highs and miserable lows of Montparnasse before WWII were also etched in the career of Chaim Soutine, who, like Modigliani, has his own corner at the Electra show. A shy and impoverished boy from a shtetl near Minsk, he scraped his way to Paris, haunted the Louvre and set up a studio at La Ruche. He painted raw, clotted portraits and still lifes, most famously of butchered cows. According to Kluever and Martin’s “Kiki’s Paris” (delightful reading on the legends and lore of the period), he kept one carcass hanging in his studio long past the point when the flesh was still firm. Every morning he sent his model to the butcher for a bucket of fresh blood to throw over the hulk, which was growing more redolent by the day. Eventually the stench got so bad, Soutine’s neighbors called in the health authorities. While the artist hid, terrified of officialdom in any form, his model negotiated. Finally, they concocted a method of embalming the animal carcasses with formaldehyde, preventing foul smells and preserving both flesh and image for posterity. Soutine eventually came to the attention of the American collector, Albert Barnes, whose patronage encouraged others. Soon the village boy who once had to be encouraged to tend to daily hygiene was wearing pearl buttons. But the Nazi invasion cut the dream short. Soutine took refuge in Cahors, neglecting a serious medical problem until he finally made it to a hospital, dying before the doctors could save him.
While WWI briefly dimmed Montparnasse’s sparkle, WWII just about extinguished it. The Electra show concludes with the work of Alberto Giacometti, who remained in the area through the postwar years. His obsessive sculptures and canvases are emblematic of the change in mood. The lusty nudes of the earlier years had melted away into skeins of existential lines and gridwork. The center had shifted, turned inward and sober.
In Montparnasse, the party was over. But in the works at “Les Heures Chaudes,” its spirit still shimmers, evoking the days when the hot times and hot talents seemed without end.