From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Like its counterpart Montmartre, Montparnasse became famous at the beginning of the 20th century, referred to as the Années Folles (the Crazy Years), when it was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris. Between 1921 and 1924, the number of Americans in Paris swelled from 6,000 to 30,000. From 1910 to the start of World War II, Paris' artistic circles migrated to Montparnasse, an alternative to the Montmartre district which had been the intellectual breeding ground for the previous generation of artists. The Paris of Zola, Manet, France, Degas, Fauré, a group that had assembled more on the basis of status affinity than actual artistic tastes, indulging in the refinements of Dandyism, was at the opposite end of the economic, social, and political spectrum from the gritty, tough-talking, die-hard, emigrant artists that peopled Montmartre.
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. First promoted by art dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, today works by those artists sell for millions of euro.
They came to Montparnasse from all over the globe, from Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and from as far away as Japan. Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Camilo Mori and others made their way from Chile where the profound innovations in art spawned the formation of the Grupo Montparnasse in Santiago. A few of the other artists who gathered in Montparnasse were Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ossip Zadkine, Moise Kisling, Marc Chagall, Nina Hamnett, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Chaim Soutine, Michel Kikoine, Pinchus Kremegne, Amedeo Modigliani, Ford Madox Ford, Toño Salazar, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Constantin Brancusi, Paul Fort, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Marevna, Tsuguharu Foujita, Marie Vassilieff, Léon-Paul Fargue, Alberto Giacometti, René Iché, Andre Breton, Pascin, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miró and, in his declining years, Edgar Degas.
Montparnasse was a community where creativity was embraced with all its oddities, each new arrival welcomed unreservedly by its existing members. When Tsuguharu Foujita arrived from Japan in 1913 not knowing a soul, he met Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin and Leger virtually the same night and within a week became friends with Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In 1914, when the English painter Nina Hamnett arrived in Montparnasse, on her first evening the smiling man at the next table at La Rotonde graciously introduced himself as "Modigliani, painter and Jew". They became good friends, Hamnett later recounting how she once borrowed a jersey and corduroy trousers from Modigliani, then went to La Rotonde and danced in the street all night.
While most of the artistic community gathered here were struggling to eke out an existence, well-heeled American socialites such as Peggy Guggenheim, and Edith Wharton from New York City, Harry Crosby from Boston and Beatrice Wood from San Francisco were caught in the fever of creativity. Robert McAlmon, and Maria and Eugene Jolas came to Paris and published their literary magazine Transition. Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse would establish the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927, publishing works by such future luminaries as D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, James Joyce, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and others. As well, Bill Bird published through his Three Mountains Press until British heiress Nancy Cunard took it over.
The cafés and bars of Montparnasse were a meeting place where ideas were hatched and mulled over. The cafés at the centre of Montparnasse's night-life were in the Carrefour Vavin, now renamed Place Pablo-Picasso. In Montparnasse's heyday (from 1910 to 1920), the cafés Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole—all of which are still in business— were the places where starving artists could occupy a table all evening for a few centimes. If they fell asleep, the waiters were instructed not to wake them. Arguments were common, some fuelled by intellect, others by alcohol, and if there were fights, and there often were, the police were never summoned. If you couldn't pay your bill, people such as La Rotonde's proprietor, Victor Libion, would often accept a drawing, holding it until the artist could pay. As such, there were times when the café's walls were littered with a collection of artworks, that today would make the curators of the world's greatest museums drool with envy.
There were many areas where the great artists congregated, one of them being near Le Dôme at no. 10 rue Delambre called the Dingo Bar. It was the hang-out of artists and expatriate Americans and the place where Canadian writer Morley Callaghan came with his friend Ernest Hemingway, both still unpublished writers, and met the already-established F. Scott Fitzgerald. When Man Ray's friend and Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, left for New York, Man Ray set up his first studio at l'Hôtel des Ecoles at no. 15 rue Delambre. This is where his career as a photographer began, and where James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and the others filed in and posed in black and white.
On their stages, using then-popular single name pseudonyms or one birth name only, Damia, Kiki, Mayol and Georgius, sang and performed to packed houses. And here too, Les Six was formed, creating music based on the ideas of Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau.
The poet Max Jacob said he came to Montparnasse to "sin disgracefully", but Marc Chagall summed it up more elegantly when he explained why he had gone to Montparnasse: "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."
While the area attracted people who came to live and work in the creative, bohemian environment, it also became home for political exiles such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Porfirio Diaz, and Simon Petlyura. But, World War II forced the dispersal of the artistic society, and after the war Montparnasse never regained its splendour. Wealthy socialites like Peggy Guggenheim, who married artist Max Ernst, lived in the elegant section of Paris but frequented the studios of Montparnasse, acquiring what would become masterpieces that today hang in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy.
The Musée du Montparnasse opened in 1998 at 21 Avenue du Maine. Although operating with a tiny city grant, the museum is a non-profit operation.
- Billy Kluver, Julie Martin Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930 (the definitive illustrated account of the golden age of Montparnasse.)
- Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 by Robert McAlmon, Kay Boyle (1968)