Montparnasse / by Chris Hall

Moise Kisling, Paquerette, and Pablo Picasso at Cafe la Rotonde, 1916.  Photo by Jean Cocteau.

Moise Kisling, Paquerette, and Pablo Picasso at Cafe la Rotonde, 1916.  Photo by Jean Cocteau.

"I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away:  this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines.  That could not be seen in my town.  The sun of Art then shone only on Paris."  Marc Chagall

Montparnasse is an area of Paris, France, on the left bank of the river Seine.  During the 1920's and 1930's, is was widely considered to be the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe, if not the world.  Staring in about 1910, artists began to migrate to Paris in order to participate in Paris' art scene, which was then centered in the Montmarte district (home to  Emile Zola, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, the Impressionists, and the 19th century avante-garde).  Finding the area gentrified, filled with Dandyism (the 19th century version of Hipsterism), and too expensive to live in, they began to move to Montparnasse.  Montparnasse was a gritty, socially downtrodden area of Paris, filled with tough talking immigrants.  Penniless painters, sculptures, writers, poets, and composers converged on the area for its cheap rent.  They often lived without heat and running water, selling their work for a few francs just to buy food.  They came from around the globe, converging on the City of Lights like moths to a flame, from Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, Central and South America, and as far away as Japan.  Notable residents included Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall, Nina Hamnett, Max Jacob, Chaim Soutine, Georges Braque, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Moise Kisling, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Tsuguharu Foujita, Marie Vassilieff, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Pascin, Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miro, and Hilaire Hiler.

By the 1920's and 1930's, Montparnasse was a thriving artist community and the heart of intellectual life in Paris.  This time, known as les Années Folles (the Crazy Years), almost rivaled Weimar Berlin's culture of excess and depravity.  Max Jacob said he came to Montparnasse to “sin disgracefully.”  The cafes and bars of Montparnasse were meeting places where new ideas were hatched.  It was a fertile crucible for the early Modern avante-garde movements.  During les  Années Folles, starving artists could occupy a tale all evening in one of Montparnasse's cafes and bars for only a little money.  If they fell asleep, the waiters were often instructed not to wake them up.  Arguments fueled by intellect and alcohol were common, and the police were rarely summoned.  If an artist couldn't pay a bill, some people, such as La Rotonde's proprietor, Victor Libion, would accept a drawing as collateral, holding it until the artist could pay.  There were times where the walls of the cafes were littered with art that make curators of today's great museums drool with envy.  But the good times could not last forever.  By the eve of World War II, most of Montparnasse's artists and intellectual's fled the country, many of them resettling in New York City, in the United States.  Montparnasse never regained its former glory.  Since that time, New York has been, arguably, the cultural capital of the world.