It is fitting that one of the first, and most comprehensive, overviews of the cultural history of Montmartre should be the special number of Le Crapouillot which appeared in 1959. Not only did it bring together some of the veterans of Montmartre culture from the Belle Epoque and the interwar years – not least its editor and founder, Jean Galtier-Boissière, who had been a frequent visitor to the bals at the Moulin de la Galette before the First World War – but it embodied that spirit of Montmartre non-conformism, which was one of its defining characteristics. At the same time, its appearance in 1959, in the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Republic. constitutes what may be considered a final chronological frontier in the district's history as a cultural centre, which had been in apparently irreversible decline since the Liberation.
This erosion was due to a number of factors: shifting patterns of cultural activity which benefited other areas, just as Montmartre in the 1880s had profited from transfers from the Latin Quarter; legislative changes, most notably the Loi Marthe Richard of 1947 closing the brothels – Louis Chevalier notes wryly that the 106 on the Boulevard de la Chapelle was turned into a Salvation Army hostel; transformations in the city's economic, demographic and urban profile, culminating in the creeping gentrification of all the arrondissements in the 1980s and following increased availability of home loans; and, finally, technical innovations which, like television, altered public taste in entertainment, and affected the closeness and sociability of intellectual and cultural groupings while tending to fragment them physically. While the Latin Quarter and the Left Bank may have shown more durability as centres of intellectual activity, due to the presence of the university and the publishing industry, they were no more immune to technological and sociological advances than Montmartre. Herbert R. Lottman concludes his study of the Rive Gauche by attributing the decline of the district as a cohesive intellectual centre in the 1960s to elements, like the proliferation of the telephone, banal in themselves, which rendered face-to-face encounters redundant, a process clearly continued by the rise of information technology.
The response of the inhabitants of the Butte to the dual threat posed by modernisation and tourism was typically ambiguous, involving an apparently robust assertion of isolation combined with an astute commercial sense. In a tradition going back to Salis and his election campaigns, it took the form of spoof political entities: the ‘Commune Libre de Montmartre’ and the ‘République de Montmartre’, which both combined a serious purpose with fumisme. At the same time, it betrayed an acute wariness of the post-war world, which translated into both a retreat into nostalgia and a continued technical innovation most clearly represented by a flowering of caricature and illustration.
The Commune Libre and the République
The Commune Libre de Montmartre was founded on 11 April 1920 by Jules Depaquit, Maurice Hallé and Roger Toziny. Its first elections, held the same year, involved three competing lists: the Liste antigrattecieliste (‘anti-skyscrapers’), led by Depaquit himself; the Liste sauvagiste, whose manifesto included a proposal for ‘the transformation of the Sacré-Coeur into a municipal swimming pool’; and, significantly, a Liste dadaïste. Depaquit won and was elected maire, Hallé and Toziny serving as his two adjoints. To be sure, as Georges Charensol reminds us, these activities were by no means commercially disinterested: describing the municipality's conception, he comments: ‘Some amiable drunkards and clever café proprietors had the idea of making Montmartre into a Commune Libre’, and the Commune Libre certainly bore witness to a continuation of traditional Montmartre cabaret activity. Paul Yaki is right to characterise it as a ‘joke municipality’ and, indeed, much of its activity took the form of elaborate practical jokes and bogus organisations, like the Alpinistes de la Butte, which go back to a tradition of Montmartre humour of the Belle Epoque. In fact, the Commune's founders come precisely from the tradition of the Montmartre cabarets. Toziny, who came to Montmartre in 1903 as a singer and songwriter, founded the journal La Vache enragée in 1917 with Maurice Hallé, Bernard Lecache and Jack Mercereau, and opened the cabaret of the same name in 1920. Moreover, he was clearly heavily influenced by Willette, often performing dressed as Pierrot and writing Pierrot poems, such as ‘Pierrot pleure’ (1918).
On 2 February 1900, Gustave Charpentier's opera Louise was performed for the first time. The opera recounts ‘the love between a young poet and a working-class girl’ who is lured away from her respectable artisanal family by her lover Julien to become the ‘muse de Montmartre’ in the bohemian's ‘cortège du plaisir’. While Charpentier's depiction of working-class life is sympathetic – Louise's mother is described as ‘le fantôme de la souffrance’ (‘the ghost of suffering’) – and critical of bohemia – the mother cries to Louise: ‘tu la connais maintenant la vie de bohème, tu sais ce que c'est: de la misère en chansons!’ (‘you now know what bohemia is: poverty with songs!’) – the opera nevertheless refuses to renounce the bohemian ideal: Louise leaves her grief-stricken parents to return to the Montmartre bohemians, while her father, in a Rastignac-like gesture of rage at the capital, can only utter: ‘O Paris!’ As Jean-Claude Yan suggests, while Louise is anchored in a literary and operatic tradition, Charpentier, who was helped on the libretto by Saint-Pol Roux, stalwart of the Chat Noir, nevertheless manages to subvert that tradition: ‘Gustave Charpentier places his libretto in the tradition of an old repertoire and stereotypes which he plays upon’. The opera is clearly grounded in nineteenth-century evocations of Parisian bohemia, notably Musset's ‘Mimi Pinson. Profil de grisette’ of 1845, and Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème, and also in late nineteenth-century operatic derivatives, like Puccini's La Bohème and Offenbach's La Vie parisienne. What is interesting, however, is that, while the bohemian relationship between artist and grisette ends in tears in Murger's depiction, by the turn of the century, bohemia is now dominant and successful in Montmartre – at least against its workingclass rivals. In other words, Louise marks a progression over Scènes de la vie de bohème and La Bohème in its celebration of the victory of bohemia over ‘civilian’ life, cruel as that may be, and it is this which constitutes Jean-Claude Yan's ‘subversion’ of the genre. At the same time, Louise represents a significant victory for Montmartre through its annexation of a fictional and operatic domain long considered the preserve of the Left Bank: bohemia depicted by Musset and Murger.
If the cabaret culture of the 1880s, following the line of the old Mur des Fermiers Généraux along the border between the ninth and eighteenth arrondisssements, pointed towards the development of Belle Epoque Montmartre as the pre-eminent locus of the capital's popular entertainment industry, with its dancing, music halls, circus, ballet and, later, cinema, it was also the origin of an equally significant innovation in legitimate theatre, which would shape French theatrical practice throughout the twentieth century. Already, as Lucien Farnoux-Reynaud reminds us, the same forces which encouraged dance halls and taverns to proliferate along the lines of the chemins de ronde also led to the establishment at the beginning of the nineteenth century of the théâtres de la barrière which avoided the Napoleonic regime's restrictions in force within the city and which, by the birth of the Third Republic, had established an embryonic theatrical culture in Montmartre. In addition to this, the cabarets, as we have seen, pioneered a new form of entertainment which combined the popular with the intellectual and privileged the performance of the spoken word through dramatic monologues, often cultivating a refined and sophisticated sense of the absurd. At the same time, Henri Rivière's shadow plays for Le Chat Noir combined with a contemporary vogue for puppet theatre to create what was simultaneously a new, protocinematographic, and a primitive, age-old theatrical experience, which would have connections with non-European drama and some of the Cubists’ interests in masks. In addition, the natural symbiosis between cabaret performance and other forms of expression – in particular the publications and comic journals which accompanied them and which gave work to illustrators, artists and writers – was naturally extendable in the field of legitimate theatre through set design, scenery decoration, posters and the production of printed programmes which would be illustrated by some of the major artists of the period. In short, the development of theatre in Montmartre, like that of cabaret and popular entertainment, followed Salis's injunction to be ‘modern’.
Essentially, the history of Montmartre theatre in the Belle Epoque is confined, like that of the cabarets and music halls, to the ninth arrondissement and the southern fringes of the eighteenth, and centres on the role of three innovative theatre directors – André Antoine, Aurélien Lugné-Poe and Charles Dullin.
Essentially, the lifespan of the artistic cabarets was remarkably short, lasting little more than twenty years from 1881 to the turn of the century. Popular and mass entertainment in Montmartre proved much more durable, predating the cabarets, running alongside them and eventually outlasting them. At the same time, music hall was able to expropriate some of the major features of cabaret entertainment and assimilate many of the major stars. It is necessary initially, however, to distinguish between two forms of this popular entertainment, which intermingle but nevertheless present different characteristics. In Le Piéton de Paris, Léon-Paul Fargue recalls that Willette frequently pointed out to journalists that ‘like Jesus between the two thieves, the Sacré-Coeur stood flanked by the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge’. In fact, the two windmills represent two separate traditions of popular entertainment: the dance halls, or bals, of which the most famous examples are the Moulin de la Galette itself and the Elysée Montmartre, and the music halls, represented by the Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergère and Casino de Paris. Both traditions inevitably intermingle, but together they contribute massively to the establishment of Montmartre as a Parisian pleasure centre and, as an important subject for painting, to its artistic activity.
The Dance Halls
According to Jean Barreyre, ‘in 1810, Montmartre had sixteen bals régis, or authorised dance halls, in addition to a large number of bals guinguettes (from the name of the founder of a cabaret Pierre Guinguet) run by café owners and dependant on the availability of musicians. The bals régis opened most often on Sundays, Mondays and holidays’. The most famous of these official dance halls was, as we have seen in Chapter One, the Moulin de la Galette on the Rue Tholozé, which evolved from a working windmill that also dispensed wine and – its speciality – home-made cake (the galette which gave the establishment its name), to a fully fledged dance hall, the Bal Debray, with the collapse of the Montmartre flour mills in the 1830s. Very rapidly, the Moulin de la Galette attracted a less localised clientele, including artists, peasant girls from the outlying suburbs, maidservants and other female workers.
The War Years
By the eve of the First World War, Montmartre, like the Third Republic to which it owed much and whose career it shadowed, was at the pinnacle of its success. It had achieved an unrivalled position as the major pleasure centre of the capital, and a wide international reputation. The music halls of Lower Montmartre were world-renowned for being at the centre of Parisian popular culture and the Butte was the undisputed centre of Parisian bohemia, although, as we have seen, this position was already being contested by Montparnasse. There is general agreement, however, that the declaration of war in August 1914 marked a definitive turning point in Montmartre's privileged position. For Louis Chevalier, ‘With the declaration of war, brutally and in just a few hours, the Montmartre of Pleasure just faded away, with its lights and its shadows, its population of partygoers, its cohorts of prostitutes and pimps, its bandits and even its anarchists. The party was over and another one was about to begin’.
In contrast with the ‘drôle de guerre’ of 1939–40 (the term was, incidentally, invented by Dorgelès in a grand reportage from the Maginot Line), the impact of the First World War on France and, especially, its capital, was immediate: the rapid German advance through Belgium and northern France brought the enemy within thirty kilometres of Paris, entailing the declaration of a state of siege, painfully reminiscent of 1870, the evacuation of the government to Bordeaux and the disorderly flight of many Parisians to the provinces, in scenes which anticipated 1940: ‘Paris deprived of its men of military age, Paris deserted by those who had fled, Paris silent and reflective … Paris is no longer Paris’. The capital was indeed eerily silent and empty. Pierre Darmon notes that a census conducted in September 1914 showed that the overall population had fallen to 1,807,000, a loss of a million compared with 1911 – 950,000 women, 585,000 men and 272,000 children. Movement of the population was seriously limited, with reduced métro and bus services and draconian restrictions on the movement from the banlieue to the capital. With the declaration of a state of siege on 2 August, the ‘ville-lumière’ ceased to exist: ‘streets were empty after 9 p.m., the cafés were in darkness and Paris began to look like a provincial town which had gone to sleep early’.
In his account of Laborde's last years, Mac Orlan describes how:
Un jour, au matin, en compagnie de Zyg Brunner il avait entendu les fifres et tambours plats dans une avenue qui accède à l'Arc de Triomphe. Les deux hommes bouleversés étaient rentrés à pied chez eux à Montmartre. Ils ne parlèrent jamais de ce qu'ils avaient vu.
One morning, with Zyg Brunner he heard fifes and drums coming from an avenue leading to the Arc de Triomphe. Overwhelmed, the two men walked back to their homes in Montmartre. They never spoke about what they had seen.
On his return to the Butte, Laborde and a few friends at Au Rêve, like Brunner, Marcel Aymé and Ralph Soupault, tried in vain to come to terms with the ‘débâcle’. Instead, he ‘let his beard grow, a beard of almost religious renunciation, shortly before dying of grief’. It was a typical, if extreme, reaction to the German Occupation of Paris, in which, of course, the enemy's presence was not confined to march-pasts on the grand avenues of the centre, but extended to all corners of the capital, not least its pre-eminent pleasure centre.
Obviously, like during the First World War, Montmartre was subject to general conditions which applied to the capital as a whole, notably stringent rationing and limitation of movement, particularly through the curfew. Robert Aron notes that from September 1940 the German ration for French adults amounted to only 1,800 calories, despite the Germans’ own calculations that 3,000–3,500 constituted the bare minimum for a man leading a sedentary existence, 4,000–4,500 for an active worker and 1,700 was ‘a slow famine regime leading to death’. This was compounded by fuel shortages: ‘in the winter of 1940–1, one of the harshest that France had known for a long time, fuel rations were hardly adequate to allow a family to heat one room poorly and intermittently for a few weeks: eleven degrees was considered a luxury’. The situation deteriorated badly after the Occupation of the Southern Zone in November 1942.
In the beginning was the Wall. As is well known, the Mur des Fermiers Généraux was constructed in 1784 as a customs barrier which split a Parisian population of some 600,000: the mass of the population remained behind the wall, condemned to pay higher taxes, while those who lived in the communes limitrophes, like La Chapelle-Saint-Denis or Montmartre, which had a population of less than 400 in 1790, benefited from relatively light taxation. It was this tax differential which was to be so crucial in the development of pleasure centres on the Parisian periphery. Along the wall there were two sets of roads: the chemins de ronde on the inside and, outside, the boulevards extérieurs. In the north, the wall, with its accompanying roads, followed the route of the future Boulevard des Batignolles, Boulevard de Clichy, Boulevard de Rochechouart and Boulevard de la Chapelle, while in the south it established the line of the Boulevard du Montparnasse.
At regular intervals, there were breaks in the wall allowing access to the capital from the communes limitrophes and further afield, and vice versa. Here the Fermiers Généraux established their barrières, crossing points with customs posts where those bringing produce into Paris were obliged to pay duty. It was precisely at these crossing points, however, that the Parisian population had access to cheaper products from the other side of the wall, the most significant of which was wine, which was highly taxed within the capital. It is also significant that, until rail transport made possible the mass importation of wine from the south, the area around Paris had been important for wine production. A document of 1790, referring to Montmartre, reports that ‘it is in this district, and some others, that there is consumption of wine from the pays François, the region of Mantes, the Gâtinais, the regions of Orléans and Blois and Lower Burgundy’. This relatively local wine, which included that produced in Montmartre itself, was the basis of an extensive pleasure trade which established itself around Paris in the ‘zone situated near the “barriers”, which contained a large number of dance halls, taverns and amusement places’.
The Legend of Utrillo
On 5 November 1955, Maurice Utrillo, one of the iconic and unexpectedly longest-surviving figures of Montmartre bohemia, died of lung disease at the age of seventy-two in the five-star Hôtel Splendid in the south-western spa town of Dax. With his death, an important period in the cultural history of Paris, beginning in the early years of the Third Republic, came to an end. The illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo was born in 1883 and brought up in the bohemian world of the Butte de Montmartre in the Golden Period before the First World War, a world characterised by the artists of the older generation like Renoir, Degas and Lautrec, with their successors among the Fauves and Cubists, and also by a rapidly evolving popular and commercial culture in Bas-Montmartre. Within this close community on the Butte, of which the cabaret Le Lapin Agile was one of the major centres, Utrillo rapidly carved out a unique and equivocal reputation, despite his early antipathy to painting and his ambition to be a writer. On the one hand, as his early biographer Francis Carco records, the Utrillo of the ‘White Periode’, who mixed plaster of Paris and cement into his palate, richly merited the description of ‘un grand peintre’. In a major retrospective exhibition on twentieth-century French art at the Royal Academy in London, his Impasse Cottin, of 1910–11, depicting a Montmartre staircase rising up to the top of the Butte, was by no means out of place next to Picasso's ethereal cubist Sacré-Coeur of the same year. At the same time, in and out of psychiatric hospitals for most of his life and often imprisoned in his own room on the Butte, his madness and alcoholism came to epitomise the dark side of bohemia, its misères along with its splendeurs. In his sensitive appraisal of Utrillo's importance as a painter, Carco also records his degradation:
On était sûr de le rencontrer là, debout, près du comptoir, ou, quand il avait bu, dehors, devant la porte, couché dans le ruisseau et hurlant quelquefois qu'il était le diable. Moi qui l'ai vu, rue Saint-Vincent, serrer contre son coeur une bouteille vide, la caresser avec amour, puis tout à coup la fracasser, il me faisait pitié. On ne voulait de lui nulle part.
In his preface to Les Veillées du Lapin Agile (1919), Francis Carco refers to ‘une génération qui, après celle du Chat Noir, a contribué pour beaucoup à donner à la jeune littérature actuelle un caractère original’ (‘a generation, which, after that of the Chat Noir, has greatly helped to give to contemporary young literature an original character’): the writers of what Armand Lanoux called the ‘Ecole de Montmartre’. The three main figures were the novelists Roland Dorgelès, Carco himself and Pierre Mac Orlan, followed, as we shall see in Chapter Nine, by Marcel Aymé and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. These three writers produced a body of fiction, essentially in the realist tradition, which adds to our knowledge of the literary history of the interwar years, and wielded considerable influence on the literary establishment, especially through their membership of the Académie Goncourt. It is interesting, however, that while they are prolific, even obsessive, memorialists of pre-war bohemia, their fictional accounts of Montmartre are remarkably few in number, as if the subject matter of the memoirs does not present the same possibilities for fictional transposition. Nevertheless, their major novels on Montmartre – Carco's Jésus-la-Caille (1914), Mac Orlan's Le Quai des brumes (1927) and Dorgelès's Le Château des Brouillards (1932) – provide important contrasting images of the Belle Epoque which resonated in different ways in the interwar years and complement the work of the non-fictional memorialists and the caricaturists of the Restaurant Manière. All three came to the Butte at the height of its fame as a centre of Parisian bohemia – Mac Orlan in 1899, Dorgelès in 1906 and Carco in 1910 – and their fictional treatment of Montmartre before the First World War constitutes an important element in the literary history of the interwar years.
Technically, unlike the avant-garde, and younger writers like Céline and Aymé, these writers are not primarily innovators, rejecting self-consciousness and operating largely within a recognisable realist tradition. Although Mac Orlan is by far the most conscious of his literary context and has the greatest intellectual scope, his novels nevertheless follow well-established narrative patterns like the folk tale or the pirate story.
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