People sit in street side cafés as though facing a giant cinema screen. I pass coffee shops and brasseries, a recurring reminder of textbook Parisian quaintness in a city now fraught with the gilet jaunes protests. I am on my way to 25 Rue Benjamin Franklin—artist Zurab Tsereteli’s studio.
He’s already waiting for me, calm face belying both his creative anarchy and the political turmoil on the chestnut arbre-lined boulevards. The high-ceiling studio offers an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower—so close you’d think you could lean out of the window and kiss it. The Georgia-born, Moscow-based artist, I notice, is wearing a red apron with the Eiffel emblazoned on it. It makes sense that the artist would allow himself this playful declaration of love for the city he’s chosen to paint in. And he paints here often. “These works are proof,” the 85-year-old says through a translator, pointing to a room full of his kaleidoscopic art. To walk around, you have to make space by moving the canvasses. Even if you manage to make your way, chances are you’d land on a forgotten dab of colour somewhere. When you finally walk out of Zurab’s studio, on to the streets with pigments sticking to your shoe, you are quite literally ‘painting the town red.’
The phrase launches him into a nostalgic trance, as he calls Paris a “moveable feast”—a symbol of freedom and coming-of-age romance. Set in 1920s Paris, Ernest Hemingway’s book by the same name later became an inspiration for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011). A regular at Gertrude Stein’s salon on 27 Rue de Fleurus, Hemingway says, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”
In the 1920s, Hemingway was a nobody, and Picasso, already on his way to greatness. Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart. In a war-driven Europe, the Treaty of Versailles had brought an end to WWI. “For those who grew up in Soviet Union, Paris was both history and mystery. Something knowable and unattainable,” Zurab says.
The artist’s first brush with Paris was in the 1960s. His wife Inessa Andronikashvili’s close relative, he recalls, occupied a high-ranking post in President Charles de Gaulle’s administration. Under Soviet’s strict rule, only one of them could travel. So Zurab did. Arriving in 1964, he took up residence with fellow Georgian-Russian artists in Montparnasse. After Montmartre, Montparnasse had emerged as a hub for struggling artists, drawn to cheaper rents, affordable cafés and a bohemian lifestyle. Still new to the city, a brush with idol Marc Chagall changed his life.
“A glimpse of his palette was like seeing a fragment of his soul,” says Zurab, whose own poetic Paris-based series, like “Paris: The Seventeenth of September” (2007) and “In Memory of Vava” (2009) are reminiscent of Chagall’s dreamscapes.
Vitebsk-born Marc Chagall lived in La Ruche (The Beehive, 2 Passage de Dantzig), Montparnasse from 1911 to 1914. He returned to Paris in later years on a commission from Paris Opera. “In La Ruche, you died or came out famous,” Chagall once said. A rundown cluster of ateliers where Chagall, nicknamed ‘Poet,’ and a band of misfits like Fernand Léger and Chaïm Soutine were busy pioneering modern art by day and getting hammered in cafés like La Coupole (102 Boulevard du Montparnasse) by night. Elsewhere, the red-canopied Café de la Rotonde (105 Boulevard du Montparnasse) was a popular haunt of Pablo Picasso and rival Modigliani. In one of these cafés Modigliani is rumoured to have mocked the great cubist, saying, “Pablo, how do you make love to a cube?” The sidewalk café of La Dôme (108 Boulevard du Montparnasse), once a meeting place for booze-addled intellectuals and poets, is a short distance away. Today, the décor still has a 1920s hangover, but much else has changed. Nearby, Dingo Bar (10 rue Delambre), immortalised in A Moveable Feast, has been replaced by an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes called the School of Paris, La Ruche slid into decline after WWII and would have been razed down in the 1960s, if not for timely intervention by giants like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Renoir. The Golden Age may have long passed but circa 2019, wandering around present-day Montparnasse, you still can’t escape the feeling that you could run into vestiges of the glory days any minute. This kind of daydreaming would belong in Woody Allen’s retro fantasy Midnight in Paris, where a classic Peugeot pulls up to transport protagonist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) to the roaring Twenties. Of course, Pender’s time travel takes place in Montmartre, in the magical midnight hour. Sun-kissed or neon-lit, Montmartre, I realise, is a year-round Mardi Gras, serving green fairy on tap to nostalgia-pilgrims like the goggle-eyed Pender. And me.
Back in the day, when Allen’s favourite filmmakers were churning out fast-talking comedies, Hollywood had invented its own version of Paris. Ernst Lubitsch of Trouble in Paradise (1932) fame had fashioned a career out of Parisian movies without actually going to Paris. “There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris and of course, the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all,” he had boasted. Audrey Hepburn, the star of Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon and Sabrina, embodied the chic and gamine French charm, one Givenchy at a time. In Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris, it is the image of rain-soaked Paris that is evoked. On one square in Montmartre, I can see ghosts of the stylish gambler Bob from Bob le flambeur (1956) and bars and cafés like Pile ou Face and Le Carpeaux that he patronised. Does Amélie (Audrey Tautou) still work at the corner bistro, casting her waif-like spells on strangers?
Having got off at the Pigalle metro stop, I can feel the top-tier village’s ‘bygone’ charm even a century later. Montmartre is of yore and of your. But the Montmartre that has always piqued my curiosity was the booming hub of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, in its fin de siècle heyday. The artistic invasion to this hillside settlement with spectacular views of the Parisian skyline goes back to the reign of Louis VI. But the arrival of Impressionists, from 1880s onwards, made Montmartre the epicentre of art. In 1886, it was here in the now-defunct Café Guerbois, on 11 Avenue de Clichy, that a group of disruptors—presided over by Édouard Manet—conspired to topple the ruling art regime. Today, the street is abuzz with shoppers, as the café has turned into a line-up of sports and sim-card stores. The only visitor from the past is the sign ‘Maison Fondee en 1830’ peeping out of the first floor.
In its fledgling days, few knew that the Impressionists would end up cutting a deep impression. Claude Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise” that inspired the coinage was singled out for special opprobrium. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” noted critic Louis Leroy. Emphasising on en plein air, the Impressionists were devoted to nature and the changing conditions of light. Édouard Manet was the leader of Batignolles group and a typical Paris boy. He was the father of modern art, Jean-Christophe Castelain, director of Le Journal des Arts, tells me over coffee. “Today, we look at the black woman with flowers in ‘Olympia’ or ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ with a nude woman confronting the viewer as two gentleman enjoy a picnic as normal, but in Manet’s time it was revolutionary,” Castelain says.
Besides Édouard Manet, Cafe Guerbois was a favourite hangout of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Gustave Caillebotte. The café doesn’t exist anymore but you can make an excursion to 12 Rue Corot where Renoir’s turf has been converted into Musée de Montmartre. The landscaped garden of his home was renovated using Renoir’s paintings of the time. Right here in this jardin, not far from the Sacré-Coeur, Renoir produced the “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette” and “The Swing,” two touchstones of Impressionism. From here, start on a half-hour leisurely walk to Montmartre Cemetery, the grave of Edgar Degas. Though Degas resisted the ‘Impressionist’ tag, preferring to be called a ‘Realist,’ he retains poetic associations with the group. A Paris native, he lived most of his life in the City of Lights, a large part of it in Montmartre. The painter of elegant ballets and race horses lost his eyesight in dotage, much like his contemporary Monet. Reclusive and depressed, he was forced out of his Montmartre studio in 1912 and spent his last days walking the bustling city he lived in and loved.
On the way to the cemetery, I had stopped by at Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s home-cum-studio on 5 Rue Tourlaque. Moulin Rouge, Lautrec’s favourite stomping ground, lies within earshot. Art world’s most notorious hell-raiser, Lautrec was the life of the Belle Époque moment in Montmartre, especially the Moulin Rouge. Here, at last, in this decadent free market of love, Lautrec found his muse. The cabarets, dance girls, boisterous nightlife, the humanity and artificiality, Lautrec captured the theatrics of life in the Moulin Rouge (Red Mill). This year marks its 130th anniversary. “I had heard about Lautrec and Jane Avril (legendary cabaret girl who posed for Lautrec) even before I joined Moulin Rouge,” says Russia-born Vlada Krassilnikova, who worked as a principal dancer at Moulin Rouge from 1994-2004. Unlike Zurab, she could travel to Paris only after the collapse of Soviet Union. Krassilnikova says the artistic heritage of Montmartre and Moulin Rouge is still alive thanks to the enduring interest in Lautrec, Picasso and other great modernists. “Let’s also take a moment to thank Hollywood,” she laughs, invoking the 2001 Nicole Kidman hit. Around the corner from the Moulin Rouge, past the Café des 2 Moulins (Audrey Tautou’s Amelie waited tables here), lived Theo van Gogh on 54 Rue Lepic, at the foot of Montmartre hill. A plaque on the apartment is dedicated to this memory.
Employed with art dealers Goupil&Cie, Theo stayed on 25 Rue Laval (now Rue Victor Massé) for a while, but moved to a larger apartment on 54 Rue Lepic to accommodate his brother Vincent who arrived from Antwerp in 1886 and needed a studio to work in. He quickly struck a close rapport with the enfant terrible Lautrec. Lautrec’s pastel portrait of van Gogh is a reminder of their absinthe-soaked friendship. Lonely most of his adult life and haunted by mental illness in his final years, van Gogh shared tumultuous relationships with fellow artists. To have van Gogh as your BFF is not a sound idea, unless you don’t mind receiving a severed ear as a gift. Cue: He cut off his left ear after a stand-off with Paul Gauguin in Arles. “What am I in the eyes of most people—a nonentity, an unpleasant person,” the tortured genius wrote in a letter to Theo in 1882. “Through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody.”
Van Gogh spent only two years in Paris but the works executed here are important enough to be considered a separate chapter in his short life. He completed almost 230 paintings, and his stay in Paris had a huge impact on his style. It was here that his dark Dutch palette slowly turned lighter, making him the van Gogh that mass culture knows today. Interestingly, Montmartre and its architecture didn’t inspire him much. Instead, the nature-worshipping, Jean-François Millet-loving van Gogh’s approach to Paris was to limn its gardens, flowers and vegetations around Montmartre, closely resembling the subject matter of the Impressionists. “You were an Impressionist from the day you picked up a pencil in the Borinage,” Theo tells van Gogh in Irving Stone’s Lust For Life, a fictional account of van Gogh’s life.
Like van Gogh, Pablo Picasso too was a young, starry-eyed expat when he arrived in Montmartre in October 1900. The squalid quarters of Bateau-Lavoir on 13 Rue Ravignan that Picasso called home was an enclave of both creativity and poverty. Today billed as the birthplace of modern art, it was in this shabby splendour, a den of debauchery and freedom, that Picasso painted the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” arguably the cornerstone of cubism. Close by, the infamous Le Lapin Agile was a gathering place for Picasso, Modigliani and poet Apollinaire—a perfect spot to bat away the blues. The 1905 self-portrait “Au Lapin Agile” was commissioned by Le Lapin Agile’s owner Frédéric Gérard and it depicts Picasso dressed as a Harlequin alongside his then-lover. One afternoon, I show up at the Le Lapin Agile. But it’s shut. “Come back at 9 p.m.,” someone says. I don’t, but resolve to some other time.
“Once upon a time in Paris, if you threw something out of the window, it was said to land on an artist,” jokes my dinner companion, the India-born, Paris-based artist V. Viswanadhan, popular as ‘Paris’ Viswanadhan. Today, he chuckles, “It will land on a tourist.” Montmartre, like much else in Paris, is now overrun by selfie-hunters. In the 19th century, artists were attracted by Montmartre’s affordable lodgings. Today, most have fled to the suburbs because the area is beyond their reach. From disreputable outpost to proud bourgeois address, its evolution is complete.
Explaining the shift in axis—where Paris has all but surrendered its global art capital preeminence—art expert Sixtine Crutchfield-Tripet says, “A lot has happened since Renoir’s “Moulin de la Galette.” Art has become democratic. Recently, anonymous flyposting artist JR displayed a photographic installation on the Louvre Pyramid Square to support the gilet jaunes demonstrators.” Crutchfield-Tripet, who first came to Paris as an exchange student at Sorbonne, says the city at first looks rosy but “can be tortured and sombre at times.” Tortured, sombre, creative, free? Did those attributes make Paris so popular with artists in the first place? “It was an open city,” muses Jean-Christophe Castelain. “At the beginning of 20th century in Europe, cities like London, Berlin and Rome were closed societies. Paris gave expats like Picasso and Chagall a taste of freedom.”
“As you know,” Castelain smiles, “the story is the same. Some artists flock to a city, go to bars and cafés, make friends. And over time, their life and time becomes a legend.”
Shaikh Ayaz is the kind of writer, who, say if he's in Melbourne will gladly skip the MCG for any art museum. But the problem is there aren't that many great art museums in Melbourne. Also, he's running out of professorial, serious-looking turtlenecks that help him, as he says, fit into the whole arty-farty culture.