Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Home at last my beautiful Montmartre, home at last!

Many parts of Paris have stirred my imagination long before I ever set foot in the city.  Minoring in art history as an undergrad influenced me great deal and helped me establish a European museum bucket list. The Louvre has been an inexhaustible place.  I feel like the undergrad student I was each time I go- six times this trip alone- baffled by the staggering quality and quantity of works.  Few experiences bring that kind of endless wonder and enjoyment to me.  I feel lucky to feel like a student half way through my life where art, art-making, and art history are continually challenging, novel and inspiring.

I remember studying Piccaso, Modigliani, Pissaro (the author of the landscape above), Degas' "The Absinthe Drinker" and Toulouse-Latrec ("At the Moulin Rouge" above) and countless others) and reading about this place called Montmartre they frequented. I invented daydreams as I looked at the projected slides of the bohemian and absinthe-drinking artists of Montmartre and was carried far away from Doucette Hall at Edinboro University during the evenings of that post-impressionist class.  I'm happy to report that I am finally able to cross this one of the bucket list though I'll definitely be returning every year from now on! More importantly, real experience will merge with those memories of my art history class something I've waited for nearly 18-19 years.

I discovered Montmartre means, "Mountain of Martyrs" after the decapitation of St. Denis. Its such a high place, due the elevation (not the absinthe), slightly outside the city and provides incredibly dramatic views of Paris.  Montmartre's wine-making was a major source of income, and apparently, as a result, its how the hill such a popular drinking spot.

I got off at the metro stop, Abbesses, which is one of the lowest metro stations in Paris- almost 100 feet below ground.  Climbing to daylight would be a great exercise for my quads which are longing to get back on the bike.  In fact, there would be much stair climbing in the hours to come! The promise was the great view of the city it would provide in addition to discovering the actual Montmartre.

 After arriving at the top of some serious flights of stairs, I came into a little piazza where local artists where making and trying to sell images of Tower d' Eiffel, Notre Dame and other well-known Parisian places.

You have to try a little harder to "see" the Montmartre I had created in my head, but the sentiment of it was easily roused. I couldn't help thinking of of Erik Satie and his famous piece, "Gymnopedies", which is a collection of minimal piano compositions that I have listened to thousands of times. The piece is so incredibly melancholic (at least to me) and interwoven in the Montmartre I have created.  This past year I had this (along with much Debussy and Chopin) on in the studio preparing for this meeting. If you don't know the piece (or know it by name) you can listen to it here:

Though I'm not so interested in romantic art, much of the work I admire stirs feelings of melancholy, longing and remembrance and so Satie has a great hold on me.  It turns out there's a story of Satie and his brief involvement with Suzanne Valadon that apparently had a profound impact on him.  While the "Gymnopedies" was not written for her, I associate the sentiment of Satie's most famous composition with the story of his relationship with Valadon.  It's retold slightly different way than I recall hearing.  Here's the wikipedia version:

    Satie and Suzanne Valadon, an artists' model and artist in her own right, and a long-time friend of   
   Miguel Utrillo (and mother of Maurice Utrillo), began an affair early in 1893. After their first night 
   together, he proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Valadon moved to a room next to Satie's 
   at the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned  
   notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet". During their relationship, 
   Satie composed the Danses gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind, and Valadon 
   painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie 
   broken-hearted. Afterwards, he said that he was left with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the 
   head with emptiness and the heart with sadness".[7] It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.[8]

One evening last week, before heading to Chez Papa, my colleague invited a Parisian professor to come to dinner to teach us a famous chanson. The one I instantly fell in love with was Charles Aznavour's "La Boheme". Like many of my experiences here, there seemed to be constant evidence of synchronicity.  "La Boheme" is about an artist recalling his days in Montmartre romantically involved with a young woman who models for him.  He recalls being happy, though poor and revisiting Montmartre afterward only to find how the city he knew, no longer is there.  The french lyrics are here followed by the english:

Je vous parle d'un temps
Que les moins de vingt ans ne peuvent pas connaitre
Montmartre en ce temps-la accrochait ses lilas
Jusque sous nos fenetres et si l'humble garni
Qui nous servait de nid ne payait pas de mine
C'est la qu'on s'est connu
Moi qui criait famine et toi qui posais nue
La boheme, la boheme. Ca voulait dire on est heureux
La boheme, la boheme. Nous ne mangions qu'un jour sur deux
Dans les cafes voisins
Nous etions quelques-uns
Qui attendions la gloire et bien que misereux
Avec le ventre creux
Nous ne cessions d'y croire et quand quelque bistro
Contre un bon repas chaud
Nous prenait une toile, nous recitions des vers
Groupes autour du poele en oubliant l'hiver
La boheme, la boheme. Ca voulait dire tu es jolie
La boheme, la boheme et nous avions tous du genie
Souvent il m'arrivait
Devant mon chevalet
De passer des nuits blanches
Retouchant le dessin
De la ligne d'un sein
Du galbe d'une hanche et ce n'est qu'au matin
Qu'on s'asseyait enfin
Devant un cafe-creme
Epuises mais ravis
Fallait-il que l'on s'aime et qu'on aime la vie
La boheme, la boheme. Ca voulait dire on a vingt ans
La boheme, la boheme et nous vivions de l'air du temps
Quand au hasard des jours
Je m'en vais faire un tour
A mon ancienne adresse
Je ne reconnais plus
Ni les murs, ni les rues
Qui ont vu ma jeunesse
En haut d'un escalier
Je cherche l'atelier
Dont plus rien ne subsiste
Dans son nouveau decor
Montmartre semble triste et les lilas sont morts
La boheme, la boheme. On etait jeunes, on etait fous
La boheme, la boheme. Ca ne veut plus rien dire du tout

The english:

I tell you about a time
That teenagers  cannot know about
At that time, Montmartre hung its lilacs
right up to our windows, and even if our humble furnished room
That served us as a love-nest didn't look like much
It was there that we knew each other
Me, crying hunger, and you, posing in the nude

La boheme, la boheme. That meant "one is happy"
La boeme, la boheme. We only ate once every two days.

In the neighbouring cafes
We were people
that waited for glory and although miserable
with empty stomacs we never stopped believing
and when some pub in exchange for a warm meal
accepted a painting, we recited verses
gathered around the stove, forgetting about winter.

La boheme, la boheme. That meant "you are pretty"
La boheme, la boheme, and all of us were geniuses 

Often, before my easel,
I spent sleepless nights
touching up the drawing
of the line of a breast
of the figure of a hip, and only at morning
one sat down at last
before a cafe-creme
exhausted, but exhillarated
It must have been so that we loved each other, and that we loved life

La boheme, la boheme. That meant "one was twenty years old"
La boheme, la boheme and we lived from the 'spirit of the age'

When, some days in a whim
I go out and take a walk
to my old address
I no longer recognise
nor the walls, nor the streets
that witnessed my youth
At the top of a stairway
I search for the workshop
of which nothing remains
In its new decor
Montmartre looks sad, and the lilacs have died.

La boheme, la boheme. We were young, we were crazy
La boheme, la boheme. It doesn't mean anything at all anymore.

Like Satie's music and relationship with Valadon, its an incredibly moving story about lost love and returning to specific places only to find that they have vanished in the way that we remember them.   Its an incredible power to be aware of these memories and feelings we have- that instigate the cathartic expression of art-making that is born from them, to appreciate where we are (or were), and to find ways of celebrating the preciousness of time we spend with others. It was so reassuring to be emotionally and pyschologically at Montmartre with these associations I had created over the years. I found it incredibly moving and was relishing in the overwhelming feelings the place had on me.  This was one of those moments that will never be lost.

Well you may have heard there's a basilica there- lol- the beautiful Sacre Couer.  Built in the 19th century, the basilica was built, in part, to honor the victims of the Franco-Prussian War.  Its absolutely stunning and provides a wonderful and dramatic view of Paris.

I took some photos and savored the drama of the view. It was gorgeous out- bright and sunny, but a little cool and a street musician was playing some Marley. 

As I headed back to the piazza, I realized one item of Montmartre I neglected to consider in building my image was- you guessed it: food. Actually my student, Annie, made yet another wonderful suggestion: a banana and Nutella crepe! It too, delivered and nearly brought tears to my eyes like Satie!  Here they are making it.

Never underestimate the power of a fresh crepe!  I continued on trying to find the Moulin Rouge and looking for the Lost Bohemian in me :)  Not sure if "being bohemian" happens in a plaid Nautica shirt, but internally it certainly did so. I passed by produce stands of fresh cherries and apricots and all of the other great offerings the local stands have.

My last stop was finding the Moulin Rouge.  Clearly during the daytime, it lacked the drama that surrounds it, but was glad to have seen at least the outside. :)

Across the street from the Moulin Rouge is a metro stop and Britt and Annie mentioned they were going to climb Notre Dame.  "After all of the stairs we've already climbed?", I thought.  So all of the sudden, the "Climb Notre Dame" group was on! I could sense that they too were infected by Paris, and to share that with them was one of the greatest things that could have happened.


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