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

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. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear