A Non-Productive Sound Day … But a Good Dinner
I went to Montparnasse today equipped for street recording as usual but alas, I came away with nothing. It happens sometimes. It’s the holiday season, many bars, cafés and shops were shut, the locals that remained seemed to be in a lethargic mood and, for once, there was an absence of any interesting sound colour.
With or without any sound recording opportunities, I always enjoy going to Montparnasse. It’s one of those places that, if you have a little knowledge of it’s history, comes to life before your eyes. It’s a place where you can walk in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth-century and the list is impressive – Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall, Nina Hamnett, Amedeo Modigliani, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and, in his declining years, Edgar Degas.
The hey-day of Montparnasse was during les Années Folles at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris. From 1910 to the start of World War II, Paris’ artistic circles migrated to Montparnasse from Montmartre which had been the intellectual breeding ground for the previous generation of artists. The Paris of Zola, Manet, Degas, Fauré, a group that had assembled more on the basis of status affinity than actual artistic tastes, was at the opposite end of the economic, social, and political spectrum from the gritty, tough-talking, die-hard, emigrant artists that peopled Montparnasse.
Virtually penniless painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers came from around the world to thrive in the creative atmosphere and for the cheap rent at artist communes such as La Ruche. Living without running water, in damp, unheated studios, seldom free of rats, many sold their works for a few francs just to buy food. Jean Cocteau once said that poverty was a luxury in Montparnasse.
My visit to Montparnasse today began in the Rue de la Gaité. In the nineteenth-century this, together with Montmartre, was the centre of Parisian nightlife. Today the street looks a little the worse for wear but then it was alive with parks, restaurants, theatres, food vendors and dance halls. One famous dance hall, the Bal Constant, opened in 1802 and, although having been through several name changes, is still there but now as the Theatre Bobigny.
My visit ended with a rather good dinner in the Café de la Rotonde. Located on the Carrefour Vavin, at the corner of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail, it was founded by Victor Libion in 1910. Along with Le Dome, Le Select and La Coupole it was one of the popular meeting places for notable artists and writers during the interwar period. Pablo Picasso, who had a studio nearby, was a regular visitor and he portrayed two diners in the cafe in his painting “In the cafe de la Rotonde”. In 1914, when the English painter Nina Hamnett arrived in Montparnasse, on her first evening the man at the next table introduced himself as “Modigliani, painter and Jew”. They became good friends, Hamnett later recounting how she once borrowed a jersey and corduroy trousers from Amedeo Modigliani, then went to La Rotonde and danced in the street all night.
During this creative era the proprietor, Libion, allowed starving artists to sit in his café for hours, nursing a ten-centime cup of coffee and looked the other way when they broke the ends from a baguette in the bread basket. If an impoverished painter couldn’t pay their bill, Libion would often accept a drawing keeping it until the artist could pay. There were times when the café’s walls were lined with a collection of artworks that today would be worth millions.
So all in all it was rather a good day. No sound recordings save for an entry into my audio diary recorded in La Rotonde, a good dinner and to walk in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth-century was, as always, an inspiration.
The Café de la Rotonde