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The spirit of Montmartre

jeudi 30 novembre 2017

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  • Scène de fête au Moulin Rouge, Giovanni Boldoni, Vers 1889
    Scène de fête au Moulin Rouge, Giovanni Boldoni, around 1889
    (C) Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Montmartre has an international reputation and this famous district represents a certain notion of Parisian life at the turn of the century.

Montmartre, the capital of pleasure

A working class area at the end of the 19th century, Montmartre became the district of choice for bohemian artists. A legendary neighbourhood that was first declared as the capital of Paris at the 'Au Chat Noir' cabaret, it is largely known as the capital of pleasure.

The upper part of Montmartre retained its village aspect until 1914, with its windmills, vineyards and clean air. The low-rent accommodation attracted many artists who chose to live there, often close to poverty but with a primary goal of preserving their freedom.

In addition to the many cabarets like the Chat Noir and the Moulin Rouge, lower Montmartre, an area entirely dedicated to pleasure, was home to a highly disparate and often nefarious population: pimps, procurers and prostitutes.

Entertainment was in plentiful supply, creating a genuine performance industry. In these last years of the century, advertising allowed the public to discover the artists. The magazines and above all the posters were a magnificent illustration of the period. Jules Chéret, a pioneer of poster art, joyfully captured the stages of Montmartre and was an influence on Toulouse-Lautrec. The impact of his 'Le Moulin Rouge' poster was far-reaching and brought success to the artist, the cabaret, and 'la Goulue' and 'Valentin le Désossé'. As a dedicated visitor to the famous cabarets of Montmartre, Toulouse-Lautrec became the most assiduous commentator on these stage moments.

Moulin Rouge : la Goulue, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
(C) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA


The theatre, chanson, circus and dance were all represented at la Butte. All of Paris came to unwind and discover the stars from the posters in Montmartre, the voice of Yvette Gilbert 'the fin-de-siècle teller' and Aristide Bruant, writer of realist chansons and notorious provocateur, new dances like the Quadrille, the Chahut and later, the French cancan that inspired Jean Renoir in 1954.


Behind the curtain

This belle époque accompanied a world in upheaval and was not always so joyful; the festivities also had their darker side. The surface effervescence cannot conceal the great afflictions of the age: alcoholism, prostitution and human poverty, which caused widespread devastation. An artist like Toulouse-Lautrec, a chronicler of real life, depicted this cruel world and portrayed the lassitude of the prostitutes' bodies with great humanity, along with the passing trade and the brothel madams.

Alone, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896
(C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda


Consumption of absinthe, the famous green poison so prized in the cafés, would come to destroy those who became dependent on it. Alcoholism, a side-effect of human poverty and misery, had dramatic effects. Some artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Utrillo came to die of it. Paradoxically, it was Utrillo's mother Suzanne Valadon who found success during her son's decline.

The spirit of Montmartre overthrew convention, liberated minds and bodies, broke social codes and invented night-life for night owls. Illustrious artists have left us many picturesque accounts of this creative period that should not conceal the destructive possibilities of forbidden pleasures.

"Montmartre has its traditions. Drinking means nothing if you don't get drunk. Talent is measured in drunkenness" - Pierre Mac Orlan