Reviewed by Karen Langley
Paris has always had the romantic atmosphere of a city which is a beacon for artists; the image and ambience, the idea of people painting everywhere in the streets, walking around in smocks and berets and living the Bohemian life – a cliché probably best punctured by Tony Hancock’s wonderful film, “The Rebel”. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that so much of modern art was indeed born in Paris, particularly in Montmartre in the early 20th century, which was a crucible which forged many talents. Sue Roe’s excellent new book sets out to tell the story of this birth during the years 1900-1910, when Picasso and Matisse, plus many of their colleagues, were struggling to find new ways to express themselves.
Roe has chosen to focus on those particular years for specific reasons – Picasso first appeared in Montmartre in 1900, and from 1910 onwards the place changed dramatically and the artists began to move away. In a readable, beautifully written book, she tells a wonderful story and pulls together many elements to give an excellent picture of how modernism started to be formed and took wings – not only covering painting and sculpture, but also in writing, dance and fashion.
One of the strengths of this book is the breadth of knowledge Roe brings to the story: we can all read a biography of a particular artist, but Roe draws all the threads together and shows the relationships. We see how the various painters were struggling with the new theories and forms, and how they helped, stimulated or competed with each other. We see how the arrival of Gertrude Stein and her family from American impacted on the artists, giving them patrons and funding, and valuable support. There is also the impact the artists had on Gertrude’s writing, and how she tried to incorporate modernist theories into her texts. Then there is the fashion of Paul Poiret, revolutionising women’s clothing and reflecting the colours in the works of art he saw. And Diaghilev arrived with the Russian ballet, bringing revolutionary dance and music, with set designs and costumes based on and influencing the modern trends. Even the dealers and collectors are given space here, as their influence was so important in giving the artists exhibitions and sales.
All these strands were interrelated, influencing each other and pulling art forward into great change and the book brilliantly relates this story. One of the most fascinating elements for me was the conjuring up of Montmartre in 1900. We think of Paris as a large, modern city, but at that time Montmartre was rural – almost like a country suburb – with country roads, windmills, shanty towns up the side of one of the hills and broken down buildings filled with starving, struggling artists, living hand to mouth. The pictures in the book show just how ‘countrified’ the area was – perhaps one of the reasons Picasso found it so appealing!
“They talked on until long after the tables in the cafes had emptied and only the hardened alcoholics were left, slumped for the night against walls, huddled in doorways or stretched out beneath the benches. In the lanes, hunched forms could be seen in the shadows, making their way back from midnight Mass. In the distance, down at the bottom of the hillside, Paris still teemed with the light of thousands of gas jets casting their sputtering shadows across the streets. At dawn, Picasso and his friends made their way home to the sounds of the early-morning trains, their wild calls rising up from the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, the Moulin de la Galette coming into view like a pale ghost against the sky.”
Another element to which Roe gives much prominence is the influence of the nascent cinema. Motion pictures had just begun to break during the decade, and started to replace the main entertainments of circus and vaudeville. The artists were fascinated by the movies, and also such innovations as the first aeroplanes, and all these elements influenced their work. She’s also excellent at bringing to life just how shocking the modernist works of art were and how scandalous society found them.
Reviews of the book have been positive in the main although I have seen occasional criticism which I can’t quite understand. Alastair Sooke in the Guardian stated: “…In Montmartre does not pretend to be a work of fresh scholarship. As an elegant synthesis of complex material, though, it excels: Roe is a skilled and graceful writer, capable of fashioning an accessible, nimble narrative.”
Bearing in mind that all of the participants are no longer with us, I’m not sure what more Roe could do than use the source material available and weave it into her narrative (and her notes and annotations are very thorough and clear). I agree very much with his assessment of her writing skills, but I would also say her research skills, knowledge of her subject, enthusiasm and ability to transmit this are strong. The really important thing she conveys here is the sense of the whole – not just one individual artist’s life, but a group portrait, reflecting all the various practitioners from Apollinaire to Modigliani to Braque to Laurencin to Stein via umpteen others. I’m not aware of another book that’s approached this era with such a breadth of vision and given such an elegant overview, showing the influences and interconnections.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I only wish that the publishers had managed to squeeze in more illustrations. Roe writes well about individual paintings or works of art, and fortunately in these days of the Internet the curious reader can scurry off and check out many of the artists she writes about. One minor niggle was the presence of occasional misspelled words and instances of repetition in a short space, which would have benefited from a little fine tuning. But that *is* a minor point – this is a wonderfully absorbing, entertaining and informative book, bringing alive the fascinating lives of modernist artists of all types in the early years of the 20th century.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has been known to wander around in a beret attempting to look artistic.
Sue Roe, In Montmartre (Fig Tree: London, 2014). 9781905490868, 384pp, hardback.
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