Exactly how much fun was it being an impoverished artist in Paris?

30 August 2014 9:00 AM

‘La Guingette à Montmartre’ by Van Gogh (1886)

What he really wanted, Picasso once remarked, was to live ‘like a pauper, but with plenty of money’. It sounds most appealing: the perfect recipe for a bohemian life, dreamed up by a supreme master in the art of having it both ways. To begin with at least, however, Picasso had to make do only with the half of his formula: living like a pauper with scarcely any cash at all. La vie de bohème, this enjoyable book makes clear, might have been romantic but was also hard.

Sue Roe has written a portrait in words of an era, through which are threaded the stories of the various people who passed by — painters, models, collectors, dealers. But her book takes its main title from a place: Montmartre. It’s an address that still has allure. Although for the best part of a century it has been a kitschy tourist attraction, it was for a few years the epicentre of the budding movement known as modern art.

Why Montmartre? A hill to the north of central Paris, this was a good site for windmills and market gardens. By the late 19th century, parts of the district were beginning to be gentrified, but the northern slope — as can clearly be seen from Van Gogh’s paintings of 1886–7 — remained a semi-rural shanty town. The area suffered from what we would call ‘social deprivation’. In other words, much of Montmartre was a slum — home to an assortment of mattress menders, circus performers, prostitutes, petty criminals and small traders.

Consequently, this was a quarter which had just what young artists always need: cheap rents. In this respect, Montmartre was the predecessor of other districts colonised by painters and sculptors, such as New York’s SoHo in the 1960s. The fact that the locality abounded in inexpensive restaurants, bars and dance halls added to its appeal.

For much of this decade Picasso lived and worked in a rambling wooden building nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir or ‘washing-boat’ because it looked like the creaking vessels in which laundry was done on the Seine. This ex-piano factory sounds highly unappealing. According to Roe:

There was no heating, no lighting, no running water other than a scaly indoor fountain on the ground floor, and sanitation consisted of a reeking hole in the ground, in a cubby hole with a broken door, shared by everyone.

Inside were 12 artists’ studios with a population of painters and models plus a farmer who used the basement for storing vegetables.

Here Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, among many masterpieces. At one point he and his mistress, Fernande Olivier, even attempted to adopt a nine-year-old child and bring her up in this insanitary spot (predictably, the unfortunate child was returned to her orphanage). The shack in which Modigliani lived, when he did not sleep rough, sounds similarly bleak.

These were years in which Picasso sped through a series of idioms, including his Blue and Rose periods and early cubism. All around, other varieties of modernist art were being developed: the startlingly coloured fauvism of Derain and Vlaminck, Modigliani’s individual stylisation of the figure, and Henri Matisse’s first great works. Roe weaves all this together, and more.

It makes for an engaging read, with plenty of attention to cabarets such as the Lapin Agile, where the bohemians of Montmartre liked to gather, the dance halls of the Moulin da la Galette and Moulin Rouge, the circuses and — a novel attraction — cinemas. The book is best when describing set pieces such as the celebrated banquet thrown by Picasso and his friends in honour of the eccentric retired customs officer and amateur painter Henri Rousseau. At the end of this bacchanalian affair the writer André Salmon was discovered, dead drunk, having apparently eaten a telegram, a box of matches and Alice B. Toklas’s best hat.

Roe is less strong on art-historical analysis — admittedly difficult to blend into a rollicking narrative such as this. The minor figures often tend to emerge more strongly than the major ones, particularly Fernande Olivier and Alice B. Toklas, both of whom left engaging memoirs of these years.

‘Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge’ (1892) by Toulouse-Lautrec

Both topographically and biographically, the boundaries are stretched. Much of the action takes place away from Montmartre; Matisse, for example, spent most of his time elsewhere. It is hard to see quite how the smart couturier Paul Poiret fits into this tale of fervent modernism; and Diaghilev’s association with Picasso, Matisse et al really comes some years later. But the story-telling is lively, so you don’t mind.

You wonder, however, how much fun it truly was. I once suggested to a habitué of Soho in the 1950s that the glamour of that British imitation of French bohemia was largely a product of hindsight. Oh no, he replied, it seemed very glamorous at the time, despite the squalor. Certainly Picasso, looking back, thought he had never been happier than in these Montmartre years.