In Montmartre | Sue Roe

Anyone who has visited Paris will be shocked by the photographs of Montmartre that appear in Sue Roe’s account of ten turbulent years in the history of that great city and the artists most closely associated with it. For this Montmartre is not the Montmartre of a gleaming Sacre Coeur and its picturesque cobbled streets with their chic little tourist cafes, but a Montmartre of wooden shacks and tumble down sheds, a nest of rats and filth and poverty – in short, a home of the poor amongst whom the greatest Western artists of the twentieth century were most definitely numbered. For them, Montmartre was cheap accommodation, cheap wine, absinthe, opium, dancers, models and prostitutes. And art. And debate about art. For Montmartre in the first decade of the twentieth century was the hothouse from which some of the greatest revolutions in art history emerged.

And what a caste of characters it boasted. Not just Picasso and Matisse, but Derain, Vlaminck, Braque, Brancusi and Modigliani amongst the artists, Gertrude and Leo Stein amongst the intellectuals and collectors and Vollard, Diaghilev and Apollinaire initially on the sidelines but by the end of the decade occupying central roles. It is an extraordinary collection of individuals and Sue Roe invokes them with vigour and skill, an unerring eye for detail and an ear for anecdote bringing alive this most fascinating of times.

At the book’s heart is the Picasso – Matisse relationship, initially hostile, later more harmonious but in this decade unremittingly competitive. The two titans of twentieth century painting shared a common master in Cezanne but their versions of cubism (and the term, as Roe makes clear, has been used to mean very different things) and the developments that followed were diverse and divergent. But what is clear is that both men were looking for a new way of painting based on a new way of seeing. This was the era when motion pictures began to flicker in the forerunners of our cinemas and they provoked many questions about how we see and the recognition that, in life, we do not see from a fixed viewpoint but a multi-faceted one. How, then, to represent this on two dimensional canvas? Roe makes it quite clear that underlying the development in their paintings was serious intellectual debate.

One of Picasso’s most important relationships was with Georges Braque. Both in their mid-twenties, they were temperamentally very different characters, Picasso volatile and expressive, Braque “friendly but inscrutable, exuded sangfroid”. So there is something rather endearing about these two brilliant and frequently earnest young men taking time off to share their love of cowboy stories and the Nick Carter library of cheap paperbacks, throwing themselves into Paris street culture and going to the cinema together.

In Montmartre is a thoroughly enjoyable book. It is not an in-depth work of art history and potential readers with a good grounding in the development of twentieth century Western art will not find an enormous amount of new material here. For the less familiar, it will serve as a good introduction. But what both will find is a wonderfully vivid, anecdote laden account of a group of fascinating characters, most of whom I have barely mentioned. It is Sue Roe’s achievement to abandon a biographical focus on just one artist and to present instead a period of art history teeming with talents that interacted both socially and intellectually in important ways and in doing so created both the legend of Montmartre and a new aesthetic.

A longer version of this review appeared in The Star (Malaysia)