It was late by the time everyone retired to André Salmon’s studio to retrieve their coats. They discovered that Salmon, now apparently comatose, had eaten a telegram, a box of matches and Alice’s best hat with the yellow feather trimming.
IN MONTMARTRE by Sue Roe is the story of the confluence of artists in Montmartre at the turn of the 20th Century that led to modernism and what we think of as modern art. I was fascinated at how closely tied into the work Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas were, and how much of it we saw through them, their memoirs and letters — also from the letters and writings of Fernande Olivier, artist, writer, model and Picasso’s partner during the period.
In seeking new ways to evoke the passage of time in a story – what (Stein) called ‘the time-sense in the composition’ – she predated Proust (first published in 1913), Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, taking her cue from Flaubert. When she talked about ‘the quality in a composition that makes it go dead just after it has been made’, she was expressing a concern, shared by painters including Picasso, with the problem of the duration of the image.
I found myself relating that to Tarkovsky’s concept – “rhythm is not determined by the length of the edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them.” Time pressure.
The crowd was, of course, mostly (and often aggressively) male, and, though Roe does what she can, the likes of Marie Laurencin are often just a walk-on in that company. But by taking in Toklas and Stein and Olivier, and Matisse’s wife Amelie and many others, Roe goes a long way towards redress and reframing the history.
And it’s a history jewelled with lovely little bits like this:
Diaghilev’s backer, the Comtesse de Greffuhle, had caused something of a stir when she visited Poiret’s salons to try on a golden dress for her daughter’s wedding, ‘a marvellous gold sheath, bordered with sable’ that made the entire salon look like a fairy’s chamber. Having lifted her head and ‘pointed her nose in every direction’, she announced, ‘I thought that you only knew how to dress midinettes and hussies, but I did not know that you were capable of making a dress for a great lady.’ Those midinettes, replied Poiret, were the very seamstresses who had made her dress; and ‘the great ladies of Belgium could always trust themselves to the taste of the midinettes of Paris’. When the comtesse visited again, his saleswoman quoted prices which had suddenly become astronomical; Poiret wasted no time with disrespectful clients.
It does, as you might expect, spend a lot of time with Picasso, but it does also expose something interesting about Picasso that frees Roe to spend time with other artists, and it’s this:
As Cocteau later saw it, ‘Picasso never lectured. He never dissected the doves which flew out from his sleeves. He was satisfied with painting, acquiring an incomparable technique and putting it in the service of chance.’
He just wasn’t a theorist. He just drew. Drew and drew and drew.
Picasso spent long hours alone in his studio. He was exploring how far he could take the experiment to position, or enfold, an object in pictorial space in such a way that the viewer could ‘walk’ around it, introducing into the painting a sense of time as well as space.
And so – and this is one of the problems John Richardson’s epic, forensic biographies of Picasso run into — he doesn’t actually have a lot to say about the work and the process beyond boasts to the press. With the great monster locked away in his studio and unable to steal the light, Roe roams, and the book is all the better for it.
Maurice de Vlaminck and his wooden tie. The emerging timbers of what became the house of modern art. I also learned a term I was not previously aware of: Divisionism. It’s also introduced me to the art of Andre Derain, among others. (You have to remember that I am a poorly-educated man with an IQ that does not break the bank.)
It’s a great book. Rich, funny, sensitive and endlessly curious. You get the feeling it could have been twice as long and still wouldn’t have run out of fine fabric.