Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 April 2018

The birth of the new: Picasso and Matisse in Montmartre

In the early years of the 20th century, the bohemian district of Montmartre in Paris was the site of a new form of art, a place where Matisse and Picasso revolutionised art and helped bring the modern world into being.

Gertrude Stein in her Paris studio in 1930. Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images
Gertrude Stein in her Paris studio in 1930. Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images

“Get yourself a room in Mont­martre,” Pablo Picasso told the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani around 1906. “Go up to Montmartre, you’ll see everything there: painting and all the rest of it, women, too, if that’s what you like.” The great Spanish artist wasn’t far off the mark. You could just about see everything in this scruffy, rustic quarter of Paris, a village unto itself. The lure of its cheap rents drew budding artists in search of studio space, living quarters and ambience.

Here, the rough-around-the-­edges mixed with the rakish; it was the domain of artisans, factory workers, tradesmen, petty criminals, performers and prostitutes. And, during the first decade of the 20th century, it would serve as an incubator of some of the most important innovations in modern art.

This is the setting for Sue Roe’s genial account of the moment, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk]. Anyone who has ever had fantasies about the bohemian life will enjoy Roe’s excursion into the studios, cafes and cabarets that dotted the streetscape, and her well-etched character sketches of a who’s who of cultural modernism.

She sets the scene well in her introduction: “In the village environment at the top of the hillside, in muddy lanes and broken-down shacks, inspired by the circus and silent movies, close to the locals still dancing the night away in the Old Moulin de la Galette, the leading artists of the 20th century spent their early years living among the acrobats, dancers and clowns. Their spontaneity, libertine lifestyles and love of popular culture contributed to the bohemian ambience of haute Montmartre and to the development of path-breaking ideas.”

On her pages, we meet Matisse, already established but still searching for a way forward with his art; a restless, young Picasso about to embark onto a crucial phase of his career as he entered his Rose period, with its reds, pinks and oranges and its images of harlequins and circus clowns, producing such iconic works as Boy Leading A Horse; Georges Braque, pioneer of cubism; Henri Rousseau and André Derain; as well as sundry other figures of the milieu – writers, art dealers, avant-garde figures and hangers-on.

Gertrude Stein and her collector brother Leo play important roles: she as muse, goad and model for ­Picasso and others, he as connoisseur and critic.

Roe keenly explores Stein’s developing literary aesthetic and how it was influenced by the heady artistic explosion happening in the studios. (Stein claimed to have posed for Picasso more than 90 times – his 1906 portrait of her is perhaps the most famous image of the writer. The painting provoked the comment that the image did not look like her: “She will,” Picasso replied.)

Also key here is the art dealer Ambroise Vollard – “always on the lookout for younger newcomers” – who was instrumental in the promotion and exposure of Picasso and Derain; he had also been an important promoter of a previous generation of painters, including Cezanne and Van Gogh. Roe is also good on the role of publicity and politicking in the art world, which was hardly immune to backbiting and petty jousting – art, in this context, was an all-out competition.

Indeed, the two central figures of the book played subtle games with each other – Matisse, 10 years older than Picasso, curious about the young charger from Spain and his obvious talent, but also wary of his presence. The Steins arranged a meeting between the two in 1906: it was chilly. Matisse had earned the nickname the “doctor” in Montmartre because he looked like an ever-respectable member of the bourgeoisie. He was loquacious, “dauntingly articulate, exuding self-assurance as he spoke incessantly about his work”. Picasso could hardly keep up. He told Leo: “Matisse talks and talks. I can’t talk so I say oui, oui, oui.” The contrast in temperament and personality struck many. “As different as the North Pole is from the South,” Matisse would later reflect on his relationship with the younger painter. Still, as was tradition, the two subsequently trade paintings with each other.

Roe spins out a rich web of associations, personal relationships, connections and artistic influences. Picasso, Matisse and company all painted in the shadow of Cézanne, whose work pointed beyond Impressionism. As he painted scenes of the Seine and Notre Dame, Matisse hung Cézanne’s Three Bathers above his easel to inspire him. (It was a struggle at times for the artist: Matisse had financial difficulties that forced him to sell off many possessions.) The elder figure’s experiments with form and perspective were potent influences on the artists who were trying to reckon with developments in other media.

Photography presented a challenge, as did the advent of moving pictures. Popular culture was slowly evolving into mass media. (Interestingly, the advent of cheap cinemas as entertainment for the working classes forced cabaret owners to raise their prices.) Cinema and photography presented a one-two punch to those who worked with paintbrush and canvas. “If the cinema confounded everyone by projecting the moving image from all angles and in many challenging perspectives,” Roe writes, “photography also posed a major challenge to the modern artist. The fact that the image in cinema could change drew attention to a whole range of infinitely complex pictorial problems and opportunities that had come to light with the use of photography.” Picasso, high on opium, once announced “that there was nothing left to live for; he had discovered photography”.

This wasn’t quite the case. The stimulation of Picasso’s circle – and his drug use – actually spurred him into greater technical accomplishments that showed actually how static photography was. Matisse was distinguished for his use of colour; Picasso would show the world not to underestimate how painters could explode and reassemble forms and tinker with points of view. He did this in a painting that would shock, baffle and vex the people who first saw it, but would go on to become one of the iconic works of the 20th century art.

Picasso dubbed it El Bordel – “the bordello” – but today we know it as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Five nude women, provocative in their state of undress, confront the viewer, pulling the eye in several directions at once. It is hard to get a fix on the scene, but therein lies its brilliance. “The gigantic figures were outrageously, disconcertingly present, pressing to the surface of the picture plane, arrested in the moment as if placed on pause for a mere second, if at all.” Even for those with advanced artistic taste, the canvas was a challenge: “There was no name for this kind of painting; nothing like it had ever been seen before,” writes Roe. “You ought to do caricatures,” one associate told Picasso. Another called it a “loss for French art”.

Georges Braque, however, knew what Picasso was up to: “There at once I knew the artist and the man, the adventurer, in the work he set down in spite of everything, as it seemed. People have talked about provocation. For my part, I found in it an unswerving determination, an extraordinary yearning for freedom asserted with a daring, one might almost say a calm fieriness, already sure of itself.” Here was a ringing endorsement from a pioneer of cubism. Braque’s judgment would be vindicated by ­posterity.

Roe ponders the disputed origins of the term “cubism”. The word entered the lexicon, coined by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who alleged that it was actually Matisse who came up with the term). Both Picasso and Braque used cubism to further their own ends. Picasso may have surged ahead, but Matisse went in his own direction, working on two defining efforts that were immense in scale, La Danse and La Musique. Stunning works both, almost mystical in their effects, they still nonetheless upset Matisse’s followers: “old friends were dismayed, fellow artists outraged”. His wife hid the reviews.

At the end of this first decade of the 20th century, the stage was set for modern art to take full flight. The little village on the hill in northern Paris is where it began. “In retrospect, the bohemian world of the artists in Montmartre in the first decade of the century may be seen as a kind of living parade, a brief, dynamic, entertaining drama containing all the seeds of the main, 20th-century show – and all the fun of the fair.”

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The National.