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Dance Insider & Arts Voyager editor and publisher Paul Ben-Itzak, who has also written for Reuters, the New York Times, and many others and also publishes the Art Investment News, is looking for work in France, where he lived and worked for 10 years. He is ready to include his magazines in any deal. Interested parties can e-mail Paul.

Arts Voyager Gallery, 2-17: Patrimoine
A revitalized Musée de Montmartre revives le Chat Noir

Left: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, "Affiche de la tournée du Chat Noir." Lithographie, 58.5 x 79 cm. Collection musée de Montmartre © DR. Top right: Anonyme, "Au premier Chat Noir," avant 1885. Tirage photographique, 17.7 x 23.6 cm. Collection musée de Montmartre © DR. Bottom Right: Vue extérieure de l'atelier de Suzanne Valadon, Musée de Montmartre. © Guillaume Lachaud.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

What sets Paris apart from any other art capitol in the world is that it is not just a city of museums, it is one, both a showcase for art and the place where that art was created. When I lived on the rue de Paradis on the cusp of the 9th and 10th arrondissements, below Montmartre, a brown metal 'monuments of Paris' signpost identified the building across the street as the one-time home of the atelier of Camille Corot. That meant not only that the pioneer of 'pleine air' painting worked there, but that Pissarro (who took his first lesson in Paris with the master) and Morisot learned about color values there, making the building I could see from my long narrow 5th floor balcony one of the 'berceaux' or cradles of Impressionism. Jogging up to Montmartre in the early morning, I might pass by the ateliers or homes of Renoir, Degas, or Toulouse-Lautrec; on the way back, I might run past (in descending order), the apartment where Vincent Van Gogh stayed with his brother Theo, the flat of Edouard Vuillard (and his mother), the old home of the Chat Noir at 12, rue Victor-Massé, or the shop of Pere Tanguy, where Cezanne bought his powders to mix and left his canvasses to be displayed (not far from the address on the rue Lamartine I shared with Baudelaire). And on the Butte (as the top of Montmartre is called) itself, after a visit to the winding street where Pissarro lived and worked and bidding good morning to feral calico cats I imagined were descended from those that Steinlen used to paint in his studio on the rue Caulaincourt, I'd dash down the parallel rues Rustique and Cortot, where Satie composed and Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo painted, when they weren't quarreling with Valadon's companion Felix Utter in battles that, legend has it, could be heard all over the Butte. The complex of 17th and 18th century buildings where they lived (and where Renoir would paint "The Ball at the Moulin de la Gallette" and "The Dance in the City," for which Valadon modeled) eventually became a museum, the Musée de Montmartre. It was a sleepy local institution until 2011, when the Kleber Rossillon Group, which made its name opening to the public the Middle Ages chateau de Castelnaud in the southwestern department of the Dordogne (itself cradle to the pre-historic cave paintings), was granted a 53-year lease to the Musée de Montmartre and the neighboring Hotel de Marne. Kleber immediately made it clear the museum would have a stature commensurate with its place as not just a, but *the* berceau of Impressionism and the artistic movements that immediately followed it by engaging a big-league curator, Philip Dennis Cate, to plan a major, 200-work, multi-media exhibition on the Chat Noir, the cabaret & magazine that played mid-wife to the art, theater, and musical avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Opening last September, the exhibition was originally supposed to close in January but was extended through June.

Pierre Vidal, "Couverture pour 'La vie a Montmartre," 1897. Lithographie, 20 x 27.5 cm. Collection privée © DR.

As Diana Schiau Botea notes in the exhibition catalogue (Skira Flammarion), the original Chat Noir was founded by the painter Rodolphe Salis in 1881, at 84, boulevard Rochechouart. Salis sought contributions from a group of Latin Quarter artists dubbed the Hydropathes, lead by Emile Goudreau, who convinced Salis to start a journal. "The Chat Noir perfected the model launched by the Hydropathes," Botea notes, "combining the publication of a weekly journal with the holding of regular artistic sessions.... The determination to hold up a mirror to all of society was to be seen from the journal's very first issue, notably in the program illustration drawn by Salis: a heroic cat, rigged out in a ruff and a Louis XIII hat, invites the bourgeois, represented by some pretty ridiculous animals, to join in a procession to Montmartre...."

Anonyme, "Pour ailleurs : le socialisme." Zinc, 118 x 147.5 cm. Collection musée de Montmartre © DR. From the shadow theater at the Chat Noir directed by Henri Riviere.

Culled mostly from private collections and bolstered by the museum's own holdings and loans from the the Musée Carnavalet, the city's history museum, the exhibition includes not just paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, and posters, but also zinc shadow-theater cut-outs, the legacy of post-Impressionist - Orientalist painter Henri Riviere, who directed a shadow theater at the Chat Noir (re-created for the exhibition), an enterprise made much easier when the cabaret moved to a larger home below Rouchachouart on the rue Laval, now the rue Victor-Massée. The artists exhibited include of course Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen, as well as Riviere, Vuillard, and also Adolphe Willette, Juan Gris, Jules Cheret, and many more. Music evoked includes that of Erik Satie, whose one-time home on the rue Cortot is across the street from the museum, and Aristide Bruant, whose 'chanson realiste' flourished there. ("One of his first hits," notes Michela Niccolai in the exhibition catalog, was "Le Chat Noir," which included the lyrics: "I am seeking my fortune / Around the Chat Noir / In the moonlight, / At Montmartre!")

Adolphe Willette, "Parce Domine Parce Populo Tuo," 1885. Huile sur toile, 200 x 390 cm. Collection musée Carnavalet en dépot au musée de Montmartre © DR.

The exhibition's mis-en-scene, by Frederic Beauclair, conjures a complete ambiance of fin-de-siecle Montmartre, from the Cirque Fernande, (where Valadon also aspired to be an acrobat) to the Moulin Rouge, with one room specially devoted to avant-garde theater presenting works by Vuillard and Bonnard ("Snowy Morning," from the series La Repertoire des Pantins), who created for two major Montmartre theaters, the Theatre Libre and the Theatre de l'Oeuvre. Demonstrating how the scene at the Chat Noir helped plant the seeds for the subsequent major movement of Surrealism, there's even a cover from Alfred Jarry's "Ouverture of Ubu Roi."

M. Balda, "Le Cabaret du Chat Noir," sans date. Huile sur toile, 30.5 x 38.5 cm. Collection musée de Montmartre © DR.

The Chat Noir, writes Otea, "came across to the public as a microcosm, combining a variety of periods and places. It was a parody of a museum, where fiction was always making a spectacle of itself, a place of illusion, but where the illusion was constantly being unmasked... a festive place disguised as a museum. In a period of democratic transition, with society in deep crisis, this cabaret contrived to offer its visitors a compensating space, a dream of eternity in carnival form."

Juan Gris, "A l'extérieur du Moulin Rouge," c.1908. Encre de Chine, 43 x 37 cm. Collection privée © DR.

In a Paris whose aesthetic under its current mayor has often seemed over the past decade to be more concerned with nurturing contemporary artists of questionable talent than promoting its rich cultural legacy, the renaissance of the Musée de Montmartre manifest by this major exhibition is an encouraging sign that the city's storied artistic past will once again be accorded the valued place it deserves -- and at a time where the French national identity, buffeted externally by Brussels (i.e. the European Union) and internally by the challenges of assimilation, is again in need of a 'compensating space.'

Vue extérieure du Musée de Montmartre, la maison de Rosimond. © Guillaume Lachaud.

Vue du porche depuis la rue Cortot, Musée de Montmartre. © Guillaume Lachaud.

Salle du bar, Musée de Montmartre. © Guillaume Lachaud.

Georges Bottini, "Au bar -- la femme en blanc," 1904. Aquarelle, 37 x 27. Collection privée © DR.

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