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Painting the town rouge: Picasso and Matisse in Paris

Michael Prodger reviews Sue Roe’s new book, which examines the decade between 1900 and 1910 that Montmartre rose to its rickety peak – home to every avant-garde artist of significance.

Midnight in Paris: Le Moulin de la Galette by Picasso (1900)
Midnight in Paris: Le Moulin de la Galette by Picasso (1900)

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris (1900-1910) 
Sue Roe
Fig Tree, 365pp, £20

In the early 15th century the world of art was concentrated in the streets and squares of Florence. In the first decade of the 20th century it was focused on an even smaller spot – the 130-metre-high hill of Montmartre in the north of Paris.

The “butte” was topped and tailed by nightclubs. The Moulin de la Galette, a real windmill turned cabaret, stood near the summit and the Moulin Rouge, a gimcrack fake, at the bottom. Thanks to its reputation as a place of cheap wine and cheap entertainment, Montmartre had been a favoured spot for artists since the late 19th century. Van Gogh lived there in the 1880s when he arrived from Holland; Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Pissarro were all sometime residents.

But it was in the decade between 1900 and 1910 that Montmartre rose to its rickety peak. Almost every avant-garde artist of significance could at some point be found between the two moulins, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck, Derain, Modi­gliani, Brancusi, Gris and Marinetti among them. To the painters and sculptors could be added Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Apollinaire, the great art dealer Ambroise Vollard and Serge Diaghilev.

This extraordinary concatenation is at the heart of Sue Roe’s book. Although she tries to provide academic armature by suggesting that modernism was born in this place in this decade rather than in the 1920s it is a bit like starting an argument in an empty room. Modernism’s roots are as long as a piece of string: Nietzsche and Freud, Schönberg and Joyce, cubism and futurism were all in place before the First World War. Roe’s book, however, is neither polemic nor art history, but a colourful narrative describing the travails and triumphs of an equally colourful cast.

Her starting point, 1900, was the year of Picasso’s first visit to Paris, at the age of 19. Matisse, then 30, had been in the city on and off since 1887 but was yet to have any great success. These two artists, in Matisse’s own words, were “as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole” and their lifelong almost-feud runs throughout the book. The other figures stuck to one or the other of them like burrs on clothing.

Matisse first met Vlaminck and Derain, for instance, when he passed them painting by the Seine: he returned the next day exclaiming: “I haven’t been able to sleep all night.” These three men became the core of the Fauves (“wild beasts”), whose colour-drenched pictures looked, in Vollard’s memorable phrase, as if they had been “squeezed out of tubes of paint in a fit of rage”. When Matisse moved on stylistically, Vlaminck and Derain joined Braque in Picasso’s gang instead.

The other critical member of the claque was Fernande Olivier, the painter and model who lived with Picasso in the dilapidated artists’ commune known as the Bateau-Lavoir. If the Picasso-Matisse narrative has Picasso graduate from his Blue and Rose periods to the age-defining Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and cubism, it was his relationship with Olivier that defined his emotional growth (though it is arguable whether he ever attained full maturity). They did not manage to have children of their own but they did adopt a 13-year-old orphan, Raymonde. However, like a puppy that grows into a disruptive dog, Raymonde was soon returned to the nuns at the orphanage – possibly because the new ménage distracted Picasso from his work and possibly because Fernande found some suggestive drawings he had made of the girl (Roe is rather coy about this).

While the art-historical story of the decade is well known, Roe describes the detail of daily life in Montmartre with particular skill. She has a keen eye for the appearance of the artists, conjuring up Picasso in his workman’s fustian, looking, as Gertrude Stein said, like a bootblack, and Vlaminck wearing a wooden tie that he painted different colours on a whim, or Braque sporting tweed suits, black silk cravats, a bowler hat and a Javanese cane.

She describes the decade year by year, each marked not by the seasons but by the annual Salon des Indépendants where the outsider artists exhibited. And as new figures appear she adds them deftly to her character list – Utrillo in 1906, straight from a mental asylum, and, that same year, Modigliani, mysterious and handsome and soon to liberate railway sleepers from the Métro for his carvings.

The end of Montmartre’s artistic supremacy was signalled by comedy. The success of the 1910 Salon des Indépendants was a picture by Joachim-Raphaël Boronali who, it emerged, was in fact a butte donkey called Lolo which had been tethered in front of a canvas with a loaded paintbrush tied to its tail. Even before this ignominious upstaging, many of the artists had already started to decamp to Montparnasse and the Left Bank, leaving Montmartre to tourists in search of a whiff of bohemian air and to the triumphant Lolo.