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Exhibition at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt brings the world of bohemian Paris to life
Esprit Montmartre. Bohemian Life in Paris around 1900. Exhibition view© Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2014 Photo: Norbert Miguletz.
FRANKFURT.- The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is beginning the exhibition year 2014 with an expansive special exhibition: From 7 February to 1 June 2014, the Schirn is showing the large-scale project “Esprit Montmartre. Bohemian Life in Paris around 1900”. Not without reason, a contemporary critic in the 1890s wrote about Montmartre in Paris: “The quarter resembles a huge studio.” Important artists such as Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh lived and worked in Montmartre. With a previously unsuspected realism, they produced memorable paintings that mercilessly revealed the underbelly of the dazzling Belle Époque. With these works, which remain unique even today, they crucially influenced the history of art in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is presenting for the first time a group exhibition with more than 200 works that focuses on the quarter of Montmartre with its stories and protagonists. Paintings and works on paper, historical photographs, posters, and graphic works by Pierre Bonnard, Ramon Casas, Edgar Degas, Kees van Dongen, Vincent van Gogh, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Suzanne Valadon, among others, from important museums in Germany and abroad, such as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as private collections will make it possible to experience the historical unique atmosphere of Montmartre around 1900.

Beginning in 1886, when Van Gogh arrived in Paris, this presentation spans an arc in time to 1914, when artists such as Picasso and Van Dongen left the quarter. Montmartre was considered a microcosm for artistic self-perception that first found literary expression in Henry Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1847–49). Soon, however, many artists deliberately chose a life as poor Bohemians – even though they often came from wealthy homes – on the margins of society. Their new identity as voluntarily-involuntary outsiders was mirrored especially realistically and impressively in their art. With outstanding works, the exhibition presents the residents of Montmartre in their everyday lives and with their existential plights: artists and ordinary people, dancers and prostitutes, street merchants, beggars, and thieves. The show casts a fresh eye, freed of idealized clichés, on its dissolute, absinthe- and opium-soaked culture of drinking and partying in the many renowned variety theaters and cabarets. It also sheds light on creeping urbanization and social transformation in Montmartre and reveals the influential network of artists and art dealers in the neighborhood.

Montmartre, named after the hill on which it is located, has belonged to Paris since 1860. The quarter offers a contrasting alternative to chic Paris with its wide boulevards and long avenues radically systematized by the urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann. With its abandoned quarries, old mills, gardens, vacant lots, and the slum known as the “Maquis”, the quarter has preserved an almost rural character. Montmartre provided fertile soil for painters as well as poets, writers, and composers, such as Paul Verlaine, Jacques Offenbach, and Erik Satie. They all found cheap accommodations there, living together with actors, washerwomen, and seamstresses in the Bateau-Lavoir, probably the most famous studio building. The poverty that was often depicted, not just for display, was as it were part of a Bohemian self-stylization that went hand in hand with the need for individual and artistic freedom. The artists chose themes from their everyday life and brought unusual perspectives to their painting through their personal views.

The exhibition brings together quiet Parisian landscapes by Vincent van Gogh, who fundamentally detested the urban bustle and so found a favorite subject in the village-like atmosphere of Montmartre. At the same time, it shows impressive works by the young Pablo Picasso, who developed new pictorial ideas and art forms in the rough and impoverished surroundings of the quarter during the eight years he worked there. The exhibition is also dedicated to women artists such as Suzanne Valadon. As a Bohemian woman she emancipated herself from her role as a model to Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, taught herself painting, and created moving paintings and expressive self-portraits.

Much of the life in Montmartre played out on the street or in the numerous cafés and bars. The Schirn Kunsthalle has also assembled paintings and other works by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen that depict the streets of the neighborhood. They bear witness to hard work, social misery, and emotional indifference but also to individual and collective desire. The many variety theaters, cabarets, pleasures in bordellos and memorable bars helped their customers to escape their social constraints. Scenes of coffeehouses showing men and women sitting at tables, staring into their glasses and looking stolid and vacant were among the most common artistic depictions of Montmartre, followed by opulent illustrations of the frivolous and light life in the variety theaters and cafés with their dancers and prostitutes. The Moulin Rouge, the Moulin de la Galette, the Chat Noir, and the Cabaret Au Lapin Agile were places that tolerated every kind of excess. With an unbiased gaze, the painters, especially Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, revealed in their paintings the dark sides of an entertained society.

Ultimately, the exhibition also reveals the impressive network of artists and art dealers that evolved in the quarter. In addition to Ambroise Vollard, one of the most important female art dealers of Paris was located in Montmartre: Berthe Weill. She discovered and supported artists such as Pablo Picasso, Kees van Dongen, and Félix Vallotton, among others, whose works made them part of the history of European art.

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