By Nicholas Hewitt

Liverpool University Press. 319 pages. £85. ISBN 978-1-78694-023-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Most of us have seen at least some of the posters that Toulouse-Lautrec designed to promote the stars of the Moulin Rouge in 1890s Paris. We may have seen John Huston’s film of the same name, with José Ferrer hobbling around and sketching what he observes. We’ve probably also delighted in the antics of the high-kicking dancers as they performed the famous Can-Can. And, if we’ve visited Paris, we could even have ventured up the steep slopes of Montmartre and popped into the Montmartre Museum to have a look at the paintings and other objects that offer a glimpse into the fabled past of an area that, we’re led to believe, proliferated with painters and poets and other practitioners of the arts.

The question is, how much of what we know, or think we know, about Montmartre is true? Was it really a hotbed of artistic activity, with painters and poets almost falling over each other in the cafés and cabarets? Was the bohemian life as colourful as books and films sometimes make it out to be? Nicholas Hewitt’s detailed survey certainly doesn’t overlook the creativity that characterised many aspects of Montmartre, but at the same time he makes it clear that it existed alongside other aspects of social intercourse. Workers and criminals and anarchists walked the same streets and drank in the same bars as the daubers and scribblers. And he suggests that, almost from the start, forms of commercialisation began to creep into bohemia. It’s probably a fact that publicity inevitably accrued around bohemian antics and, as a consequence, attracted the bourgeoisie. Once they started to appear there was money to be made by the sharp-minded.

It’s the “commercial packaging” of Montmartre which, according to Hewitt, was responsible for its “success and durability”, though it might also have led to its eventual decline as a centre for creativity. This “packaging” didn’t always come after the passing of the events and personalities that it celebrated. The Montmartre street scenes that were “reproduced as popular prints on the walls of countless homes across the world” were painted by Maurice Utrillo, son of the artist Suzanne Valadon, and a sad drunk who, Hewitt quotes Francis Carco as recalling, could be seen reeling around the district, or lying in its gutters. Utrillo became something of a legend, even in his lifetime, and it’s impossible to exclude him from any history of Montmartre or bohemia generally. It’s not all that long ago that I came across a somewhat battered copy of Stephen and Ethel Longstreet’s Man of Montmartre, a 1958 novel based on the life of Utrillo, who died in 1955. Ah, the romance of bohemia.

One of the interesting questions that Hewitt raises relates to the relationship between high and low culture that often existed in areas with a bohemian reputation. He refers to Soho in London as an example, and could have equally mentioned Greenwich Village in New York. With regard to Montmartre, he notes that bars, brothels, clubs of various kinds, and the people who frequented them, existed in tandem with the artists who may have been found in the Lapin Agile or the Rat Mort. And not all the writers and painters in Montmartre were aiming high. The ephemeral was often the concern of those anxious to earn some money. Posters and quickly-produced publications with topical poems and humorous anecdotes were sources of income.

For a time, at least, the area pulled in not only Picasso, but many others such as Modigliani, Braque, the Italian Gino Severini, the Dutchman Kees Van Dongen, and the Spaniard, Ramon Casas, whose painting of Erik Satie in Montmartre (windmill in the background) might be one of the classic images of the period. I’d also include another Casas painting, Madeleine ou Au Moulin de la Galette, in any list of paintings representative of the place and/or period. Hewitt says that the Moulin de la Galette had originally been a one of the mills that Montmartre had been noted for and, following its conversion, it became “an authentic dance hall, but one which increasingly attracted the painters who moved to Montmartre in the last half of the century and who took it as a subject for their work”. The Casas painting stood out in the exhibition about bohemians that I saw at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2012.  

The ramshackle Bateau-Lavoir housed various painters and poets for a time, Picasso among them. It’s inevitable that he is sure to appear in any account of what was, according to Hewitt, a “typical example of bohemian colonisation of industrial or artisanal buildings”. After its former use as a piano factory and a locksmith’s premises, it was home to Juan Gris, Modigliani, Van Dongen, and the poets, Max Jacob, André Salmon, and Pierre Reverdy. The myths of bohemia incline it to be a location that could almost appear attractive, but the German painter, Karl-Heinz Wiegels committed suicide there, and Picasso himself once described living in the Bateaux-Lavoir as “ the worst period of my life….I knew cold, hunger, humiliation, and I swear that you don’t forget that”.

The bohemian life always had its dark side, some of which was recorded by Picasso when he painted pictures of his friend, Carles Casagemas, a fellow-Spaniard who, after his advances were rejected by a model, attempted to shoot her in a restaurant on the boulevard de Clichy and, when he missed, turned the revolver on himself. Picasso produced quite a few pictures of low-life in Montmartre around this time, including one of Bibi La Purée, “a well-known and colourful vagabond”, who appears to have drifted between Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, and somehow survived on odd jobs and charity from “those who found him charmingly bohemian”. I’ve picked up the details about him from the book accompanying the exhibition, Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, at the Courtauld Gallery, London, in 2013. Picasso’s portrait of Bibi was in the exhibition.

One of the places that seems to have been popular with both bohemians and bourgeoisie was the Chat Noir, a cabaret founded in the 1880s and with walls decorated by, amongst others, Adolphe Willette and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen. It was Willette who painted a large canvas that can now be seen in the Montmartre Museum. It shows “a vast crowd of revellers being led by a sinister Pierrot over the roofs of Montmartre towards an ill-defined fate”, and is referred to by Hewitt as “an extraordinary example of fin-de-siècle pessimism”.  And he suggests that there was a “dark underside” to the pleasure-seeking of Montmartre that perhaps pointed to deeper feelings of “anxiety and foreboding”. We can probably never know how many disillusioned artists and writers came and went in Montmartre. It wasn’t all fun and games in bohemia.

A famous poster that Toulouse-Lautrec painted showed the cabaret performer, and later club owner, Aristide Bruant: “black corduroy suit, with short boots, broad-brimmed hat and flowing red scarf”. He had a “repertoire of songs evoking the poor quarters of Paris and their inhabitants”. Bruant also liked to mock his largely bourgeois audiences by insulting them. It was a technique that paid off handsomely as aristocrats and middle-class alike enjoyed being told how nasty they were. Perhaps they felt safe enough to take it all? It was easily within living memory that the working-class of Paris had been taught a painful lesson about rising against their “betters” as thousands of them were butchered when the Commune collapsed in 1871.

Was Bruant sincere in his celebrations of the poor and attacks on the rich, or had he simply realised that he had latched on to a winning formula? Hewitt records that Bruant’s club, The Mirliton, prospered, and he made money. The Mirliton became the Club Aristide Bruant, and a magazine was published, together with a weekly, La Lanterne de Bruant, and “a series of popular novels produced by a team of ghostwriters”. Bruant may have typified Montmartre in many way, but if he did, it demonstrated how inauthentic was the sort of bohemianism that his audiences imagined they were experiencing.

It is relevant to note that Bruant, though he might be thought to be generally left-wing in his politics, was in fact “firmly anchored on the right”. He was anti-semitic and anti-Dreyfus when the scandal over his conviction caused dissension in France. Bruant had worked out that a “wry obeisance to art, to youth, to social concerns, and to a romanticised past”, was a good way to make money. I suppose it could be true to say that, even now, he’s helping to sustain the myths that mark Montmartre as something special. His image crops up in books about bohemianism, as well as in advertisements for exhibitions.

It became obvious after a period of popularity that Montmartre was starting to lose its attractiveness, perhaps even its meaning, for many artists. They began to move to Montparnasse and elsewhere. Hewitt reasons that: “Montmartre was in a sense doubly the victim of its own success: on the one hand its growing stature as a pleasure and tourist centre in the capital drove up prices while rendering the district less congenial for genuine artists and writers: on the other, once they achieved a little financial success, those very same artists and writers preferred to move to more comfortable quarters”. It’s only natural that no-one wanted to carry on living for too long in the tumbledown Bateau-Lavoir. Even Utrillo, despite his associations with Montmartre, eventually moved with his mother and her lover to better accommodation as he earned more money.

It isn’t true to say that all the artists and writers left Montmartre, but it is a fact that those who did were, on the whole, the ones more likely to be involved with the avant-garde in the arts. There is an interesting aspect of the relationship between bohemia and modernism raised by this. Bohemia wasn’t necessarily where the avant-garde thrived. Many bohemian artists could be fairly traditional in their approach to creativity. They were not all groundbreakers or cutting-edge practitioners of their crafts.

It’s more than probable that, of the artists and writers who chose to stay in Montmartre, more than a few of them were happy to carry on catering for the tourists and others who wanted pictures of recognisable scenes, easy-to-read writing in any publications they bought, and popular entertainment in the clubs and cafés they frequented. The Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère weren’t likely to pack up and find new premises somewhere in the city. Hewitt notes that some significant cartoonists remained in Montmartre and helped define the culture there as “a conscious demarcation from the high seriousness and intellectualism of the Left Bank”.

Hewitt shows how novelists and journalists (and the two could often be one and the same), whose roots were in the pre-1914 Montmartre bohemia, exploited their memories, and most likely magnified them, in books and articles which looked back nostalgically to the supposed heady days when they could live quite cheerfully on very little. And so, they helped create the myth of Montmartre as once the headquarters of carefree bohemianism and burgeoning creativity.

It wasn’t all downhill, of course. Writers like Marcel Aymé and Louis-Ferdinand Celine arrived in Montmartre in the 1930s, and Hewitt says that “important and innovative work in the visual arts was carried out by humourists, illustrators and caricaturists”. There was still creativity in Montmartre, but it didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid down elsewhere : “In the interwar years, Montmartre culturally became the centre for non-conformism which…..often took the form of extreme conservatism and artistic deviance from what was perceived as the mainstream”.

The conservatism Hewitt refers to could express itself, as in Celine’s work, as anti-semitism, among other things. The 1930s were years when the Left tended to dominate the intellectual scene. Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, seen by Hewitt as a Montmartre novel, didn’t fit into the usual pattern of left-wing writing, despite its anti-bourgeois sentiments. But those sentiments were not the sole property of anarchists and others on the Left. People often forget that the fascists when they were first around in the 1920s were sometimes referred to as “armed bohemians”.

Nicholas Hewitt has written a scholarly book about Montmartre which also manages to be very readable and entertaining. He’s alert to the contradictions of bohemia, in terms of how quickly it could be exploited and turned to commercial advantage. Perhaps writers can be partly blamed? As journalists and novelists they publicised the places and the personalities, and so attracted attention from the wider public. It wasn’t something new when the bourgeoisie began to turn up to look at the Montmartre bohemians. The same thing had happened earlier in the nineteenth century when, following the success of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the curious flocked to the Latin Quarter and drove the bohemians out of the cafés where they could earlier have obtained cheap food and drink. And then, of course, the writers who started it all wrote memoirs in which they lamented what took place when commercialism came along. What happened in Montmartre was no different from that point of view.