What an extraordinary period for art were the early years of the twentieth century in the City of Light, much of it emanating from two refuges for poor artists and writers – Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), an ex-piano factory in the Place Emile-Goudeau in Montmartre and La Ruche (the bee-hive) situated across the river in the Passage Danzig in the 15th arrondissement.
It was the writer Max Jacob who invented the term Bateau Lavoir to describe the rickety, wooden building, which reminded him of the laundry boats on the Seine. Later he would call it the Central Laboratory of Painting. At one time or another, Braque, Derain, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Juan Gris and Matisse as well as Max’s friend Picasso lived and/or worked there, as did writers Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet.
La Ruche, originally a temporary, circular pavilion designed by Gustave Eiffel to showcase French wines at the Great Exhibition of 1900, had been dismantled and re-erected as low-cost studios for artists. Among its tenants and frequenters were Chagall, Leger, Soutine, Brancusi, Modigliani and Diego Rivera.
These innovative and talented young artists, many of them, like Soutine and Chagall, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were driven by poverty and exhilarated by freedom, more powerful stimulants than any strong drink or drug. ‘I knew we would make it through the Bateau Lavoir’, wrote Picasso, ‘There we were truly happy; we were considered as painters and not as curious animals’.
It is one thing to be present, quite another to recognise the importance of what’s happening around you. At the Dôme Café in Montparnasse Modigliani, who required strong liquor to fuel his creative urge, would offer a quick sketch in exchange for a glass of mominette, a cheap absinthe based on potato alcohol. How many of his drawings were framed and treasured and how many used to light the stove or compile the weekly shopping list? I wonder what I would have done with a portrait of myself with distorted face and elongated neck. Artists are not always the best people to market their own work and the tenants of the Bateau Lavoir and La Ruche were fortunate to attract the interest of art critic and poet Wilhelm Kostrowicki, the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman. Calling himself Guillaume Apollinaire, he drew these two artistic nests together and to the attention of the public and the collectors. Picasso and Braque had no idea they were Cubists until Apollinaire coined the term ‘Cubism’ in 1911 to describe the emerging art form. Likewise Dali, Duchamps and Max Ernst would not have known they were Surrealists if Apollinaire had not invented and included the word in an article for the program of the ballet ‘Parade’, produced in 1917 by Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie.
In the early days Apollinaire was also poor, forced to sell his literary talents to the clandestine market. His erotic novel, ‘Les Onze Milles Verges’ (The Eleven Thousand Rods), written in 1907 but banned in France until 1973, is a masterpiece of smut, its title a reference to the massacre in Cologne of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand British virgins in the early centuries of the Common Era. So that’s where they all went.
It’s the story of Mony Vibescu, a Rumanian Prince who comes to Paris in search of excitement and sexual adventure, moving via the Orient Express to Bucharest and St Petersburg and ending in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. It is verbally inventive, comic, obscene, satirical and deadly serious. A lot of the places and historical detail are actual and factual and there are real people or ideas behind the masks; example – the name of the Japanese prostitute Kilyemu is an abbreviation of ‘Celle qui l’emu’ – she who moved him. Tongue in cheek, Picasso claimed it was his favourite book, but it did remain one of his prized possessions. The publishers of my 1976 English translation omit whole paragraphs they feel too explicitly violent. These missing passages describing the crueller aspects of physical love and the triumph of evil were part of the writer’s attempts to rehabilitate the Divine Marquis and the belief that there is a fundamental purity in very bad behaviour.
His next literary works were three collections of poetry – L’Enchanteur Pourrissant (1909), Le Bestiare ou Cortege d’Orphee (1911) and Alcools (1913), the latter establishing his immediate fame and future legacy. The poems were applauded for their combining of contemporary themes with traditional poetic forms. I’ve tried to enjoy Apollinaire’s poems because I like the sound of the man, but as kindly, clever, loyal and gregarious as he was, his poems now seem sad and pessimistic.
All went well until 1911 when Vincenzo Peruggia, a former attendant at the Louvre, stole the Mona Lisa, unwittingly involving Apollinaire in the crime, and creating an international uproar. The theft, claimed the New York Times, ‘has caused such a sensation that Parisians, for the time being, have forgotten the rumours of war.’ Bouquets of flowers were placed beneath the spot where the painting had hung and the Editor of the French news magazine, L’Illustration, asked ‘What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?’ Peruggia fitted none of these descriptions; he was merely intent in returning the painting to what he considered to be its homeland, Italy, and to extract a reward for doing so. Apollinaire was arrested and briefly jailed and Picasso questioned by the police, on account of an earlier theft from the Louvre of several Iberian stone heads by Apollinaire’s secretary, which Picasso had bought and used as models for his 1907 painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before taking it to Florence where he contacted Dott. Poggi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery, in an attempt to discuss a reward for its repatriation. But Poggi called the police who soon recovered the painting from a room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia; Peruggia’s claim to have been motivated by patriotism earned him a sentence of just seven months.
Soon after the Mona Lisa was back hanging in the Louvre, Europe went to war and, like the wind, Apollinaire’s luck changed. Taking up the Government’s offer of citizenship to any foreigner fighting for France, the stateless Apollinaire enlisted, and served at the front until 1916 when a shell fragment pierced his helmet and made him a semi-invalid. It wasn’t the Germans who finished him off but the Spanish Flu, so named because neutral Spain, free of war-time censorship, was the first country to publicise the pandemic. The most popular theory is that the flu originated in Fort Riley, Kansas and came to Europe with the American soldiers. Whatever the circumstances, Apollinaire, already weakened by his war wound, succumbed to the flu in 1918 just months after he was married. The French buried him alongside the rest of their heroes in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
The Bateau Lavoir was destroyed by fire in 1970 and rebuilt in 1978; it still provides studios, but not accommodation, for young artists.
La Ruche, saved from demolition in 1968 by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Renoir and others, remains a collection of working studios for artists.
The hotel where Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa is still there in the via Panzani, now called Hotel La Gioconda.