Book review: In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, by Sue Roe

Sue Roe's new book captures the modernists in their early years, with rich vignettes of the artists and personalities of the period

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 7:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 7:13am


In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art
by Sue Roe
Fig Tree

The late American art critic Leo Stein said of Pablo Picasso that he was "just completely there … more real than most people". This book is also just completely there.

Like the Catalan sardana, a dance - as Picasso told Georges Braque - that is "a communion of souls … each step must be counted … rich and poor, young and old, dance it together", here they are, all the very different characters in a group biography that manages not to miss any steps.

Andre Derain stands out in his tall lankiness, with his outfits varying from his Collioure period of all white with a red beret, to his dandyish English tweeds with his red and green ties in his Montmartre period, to his thick woollen sweaters on the Rue Bonaparte.

Maurice de Vlaminck, with his powerful body, blue eyes, flaming red hair, a red scarf and a painted wooden necktie, joins Derain.

Picasso and the curly-haired Braque - both enchanted with Wilbur Wright and the idea of flight, experimenting with paper sculptures as "flying machines" - take to wearing "Vilbours": replicas of Wright's peaked green cap (Braque is even nicknamed "Vilbour"). Both also wear the cloche hats Braque finds at Le Havre, their sideburns smudged with burnt cork alongside their false moustaches. Costumes count.

We see these four as the original Bande a Picasso, as they swagger along the Montmartre streets, then Derain and Vlaminck going in another direction as they split off from Braque and Picasso, who begin doing their cubist stuff.

On that much discussed topic, author Sue Roe is to the point. Henri Matisse wanted to show, the story goes, that one of Braque's paintings of the roofs of L'Estaque consisted of "petites cubes" - one of the origins of the term "cubism". Roe has much more on the term, and enlists the handheld fan as the symbolic object in cubist painting, enfolding as it does differing points of visual contact in a concertinaed form.

What an eye for art [Sue] Roe has: she doesn’t spin out the descriptions, but you feel the presence of the work

She has the gift of painting close-up descriptions and scenes. I can see, right now, Manolo the sculptor who never sculpted (the artist born Manuel Martinez Hugue said he couldn't afford the materials), Andre Salmon the writer, and early 20th-century poet Guillaume Apollinaire going up the hillside to the Rue Ravignan (justly celebrated by poet Max Jacob and painter Juan Gris) to meet Picasso. It is an unforgettable picture.

Roe is skilled at selecting the telling detail while continuing the sweep of the thing: mathematician Maurice Princet tearing up his wife Alice's fur coat when she goes off with Derain; Derain picking up his umbrella in Collioure as a mark of his leaving; socialite and author Margot Asquith showing her violet knickers as she enters fashion designer Paul Poiret's salon; artist Marie Laurencin fencing in Poiret's specially designed costume with an eyeglass in one hand and the foil in the other; writer Gertrude Stein dropping all her books on the floor to stop brother Leo Stein's endless flow of explanation about Picasso's paintings. The continuity isn't arrested: like Stein's endless flow it is, rather, enhanced.

And Roe's retellings are often arresting. Paul Cezanne, always thinking about how to represent his sitters, once said that if he asked someone to pose "like an apple" it was so he could paint "a head like a door". This seemingly mysterious statement might imply his celebrated paintings of apples open, for him and for those of us looking at them, on to somewhere inside the visible exterior.

Roe also captures the drama of various scenes: for instance, the "mellow opium evenings" in the Bateau-Lavoir ending abruptly when Karl-Heinz Wiegels, overdoing it with opium, hashish and ether, was found hanging by Picasso - his "bande" swore they would never touch opium again.

Diving into any book based on art and place is bound to arouse particular responses according to the reader. So, for me, to read about Collioure, the tiny "town of artists" that I know well, with its ancient trade in anchovies, where Matisse and Derain engaged in the "flat" treatment of "la couleur pour la couleur", is already preparing an emotional ground. It is here that Matisse painted Le Bonheur de Vivre ( Joy of Life), and Derain his Bateaux a Collioure. Equally, to read about the "blond, gilded light, which suppresses the shadows", as Matisse writes to Vlaminck, and then to come across the simple sentence that "in 1905, summer came early" gives the same kind of whack to the emotions as the first words of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast: "Then there was the bad weather" - the weather and the light differ, but the "then" and the "1905" say a lot about Paris and Collioure, if your mind is slanted that way.

Among the admirable transitions is the one from place to place, from Montmartre to Montparnasse, from street to street, cafe to nightclub, so the Lapin Agile bar and its eccentric owner Frede and his donkey Lolo come as alive as Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo's mother and the most far-out painter imaginable - she also posed for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and, though it's not mentioned here, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In 1909, shooing away her husband, she took a lover, Andre Utter, 21 years younger than herself, and lived with him and her son as "the diabolic trinity".

What an eye for art Roe has: she doesn't spin out unduly the descriptions, but you feel the presence of the work. I loved knowing that the one painting Derain would not part with was his copy of Domenico Ghirlandaio's Bearing the Cross, that Matisse kept Cezanne's Three Bathers right above his easel, and that his portrait of his wife hung above Gertrude Stein's writing desk.

Of course, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon makes an appearance - it's an icon of the 20th century, and we're still held captive by it. Picasso had called it Le Bordel, and it was Salmon who renamed it. Is it a response, an "anarchic retort", to Matisse's Arcadian ideal of the immense Le Luxe of 1907? Picasso painted it alone, never showing it, and it remained out of sight for 16 years. He said of it later: "You have to give whoever is looking at it the means of painting the nude himself with his eyes."

Some of the most colourful chapters take us to Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck delighting in the bright colours and the broad rhythmical patterns of the water, as in Collioure. In 1907, Matisse went back to that beloved place, as he often did, where he made a vivid and vibrant study of La Musique, studying spatial design, in intuitive preparation for the immense expanse of La Danse. As, even now, we watch that round of a farandole, we're still gripped by the story of the dialogue between Picasso and Matisse and by this book's own brilliant dance.

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