Born Nobody on Montmartre

Buried on Montmartre, Famous

Paris:- Wednesday, 25. September 1996:- Put yourself in these shoes: you are a visitor to the amusement park that is called 'Paris.' But unlike a normal amusement park where everything is made-up or a real or false replica, this one is the original of itself.

Let's say, you decide to see the picturesque part where the painters lived - up on the hill of Montmartre, which is called the 'butte.' At first view, this is a picture postcard - a parody of the past. But is it?

Let's say, you've looked at reproductions of paintings by Maurice Utrillo - they show Montmartre as it was - but are they not - a little bit like postcards? A little too nice? A little too picturesque? And, if these are what you are looking for - then, is not what you find today, a bit too garish, too vivid - too kitsch?

You may know a lot more about this Maurice Utrillo than I do, but if you do not - knowing a little bit about him, will kind of put Montmartre into a place in your head - that today's view of it will not disturb.

Maurice Utrillo was one of the few famous painters of Montmartre - who was born on Montmartre, in 1883. One of the only. His mother's name was Marie-Christine Valadon - a clothing-designer, a painter's model - and herself a painter - under the name of Suzanne Valadon. She posed for Berthe Morisot, for Renoir and as a circus-rider for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Edgar Degas admired her work and she probably modeled for him as well.

Little Maurice was raised by his grand-mother, and the story goes that she used to spike his soup with wine as an aid to sleep - which lead straight to absinthe after school and his first detox treatment at 18, in 1901. At Saint-Anne, Dr. Ettlinger suggested painting as a therapy, which he took to with vigor - to the extent that he was successful enough to buy more booze.

For years he painted everything he saw on Montmartre. I started today where Utrillo ended, in Montmartre's St. Vincent Cemetery. From Utrillo's grave you can see the roof of the cabaret of the 'Lapin Agile.' This is on the north side of the 'butte' - not far away from the whole-world circus at the Place du Tertre, but far enough.

With his mother and her friend, André Utter, Maurice moved to number 5, impasse de Guelma - now named villa de Guelma - where Braque worked, and then back to 12 rue Cortot, from 1906 to 1909.

The present Musée de Montmartre now occupies this address, where he lived and worked in a second-floor studio. The mansion in the garden at the back is the oldest hôtel on Montmartre, and one of its first owners was Claude Roze - also known as Roze de Rosimond - who bought it in 1680 - he was the actor, who replaced Molière and died on stage, like his predecessor. The house was Renoir's first Montmartre address and many other names moved through the premises - Raoul Dufy, Poulbot - but those are other stories.

From the cemetery, I walked around the once ritzy avenue Junot to see the 'hameau des artistes' at number 11, where Utrillo stayed for a time after the first war, feeling abandoned by the artistic emigration of his fellow painters to Montparnasse. He moved between this artist's colony - now private - and various psycho wards, and his usual Montmartre scenes: bars and cafés.

With no particular training - except from his mother, and possibly her friends - as a draughtsman or painter, he drew and painted what he saw around him in Montmartre as well as he could. Critics took note of him after 1910, but much of the decade was spent in detox sessions at Sannois, Villejuif and Picpus.

I have a book here that characterizes Maurice Utrillo as cursed, rejected and an outcast - in fact the title of it is 'Cursed Painters,' and puts Utrillo in the company of Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Gauguin, Modigliani, El Greco and Goya. These are not small names in the art world, and I do not find it surprising that these men were not bourgeois nonentities - as the proposition of the book seems to think would have been suitable for them. Being lunatic is no fun - but if it is where art comes from, well...

The back streets of Montmartre are not much changed. But some of Utrillo's scenes, if painted today, on the more visited south side of the 'butte,' would be hideously tacky.

His 'Rue Norvins' still has the buildings, but their face-paint has changed. The view down the 'Rue du Mont-Cenis' is only slightly more built-up. Utrillo, in the psycho-critique, is reproached for the deserted aspect of this painting, but in today's photo, there is no overpopulation.

And that is what the 'art-business' crowd probably cannot understand - sitting at their warm, comfortable desks, thinking about this - they are not there, where the painters were, and do not have the industry to go there nor the imagination necessary to recreate the possible mood that was in the painter's head at the time.

You, on the other hand - not being overburdened by diplomas, nor art-historical preconceptions - can do it. Take a photocopy of one on Utrillo's paintings with you to the spot in Montmartre that is depicted, and just put yourself 'back there' in your head. If you are full of wine at the time, you may feel like painting too.

His mother, who more or less watched over him throughout his life - except for the first 17 years - moved him out to the country, sometime after 1921. He was baptized at 50 and at 52 he married Lucie Valore and moved out of town for good, to Le Vesinet, not far to the west of Paris. I imagine he kept sane, because the book makes no mention of further adventures - you see, if you're not 'difficult,' you become uninteresting.

Utrillo returned to Montmartre in 1955 to play himself in Sacha Guitry's 'Si Paris m'était Conté.' Both of them are buried in Montmartre's St. Vincent Cemetery.

Musée de Montmartre
12 Rue Cortot, Paris 18. Tel.: 46 06 61 11
Open from 11:00 to 18:00 except Mondays
Entry price: 25 francs
Métro: Abbesses or Lamark-Caulaincourt. Also 'Montmartrobus' or take the little train from Place Blanche or Place Pigalle.
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