Françoise and Modigliani
at La Ruche

photo: vavin, raspail, from hotel

Guillaume's hotel overlooks Vavin and Raspail, once
the 'centre of the world.'

Adventures In Montparnasse

by Guillaume
The Art, Ballet, and Drive-in Movie Critic of
Park Cities, Texas

Paris:- In January 2003:- Françoise is the childhood friend of a friend. They both grew up in Normandy, but Françoise became a devoted Parisienne. She is constantly saying, "I love Paris." She is saying this in French, which I do not speak. Nor does she speak English. However, our mutual enthusiasm for Paris gives us the camaraderie of conspirators.

Françoise met me at the charming Hotel Le Royal in Montparnasse, where I had been staying, and introduced me to the owner of the hotel.

As a real estate agent, she sold the hotel to him and remains a family friend. He pointed out that the first dinner theater inphoto: la ruche, the beehive the world started in the hotel's dining room. He too, loves Paris, and enthusiastically translated for me the details of the afternoon and evening tour that Françoise had planned. A common thread throughout was to be La Ruche, the legendary building of ateliers for artists and writers.

The artists' ateliers known as 'La Ruche' - the 'Beehive.'

Leaving the hotel, we walked across the Boulevard Raspail on our way to Le Cottage, a restaurant in the Rue Léopold-Robert. Inside, the petite restaurant is warmly and beautifully decorated. Françoise introduced me to the owner, and I learned that she sold the restaurant to him and they have also remained friends. He, too, translated between us.

The food at Le Cottage was delightful! The dishes available on the daily menu are traditional French cuisine, but richly seasoned with subcontinent spices. As frequently occurs in Paris, I am amazed at the creativity and quality.

Of the five most important bar-cafés where the artists, writers and wealthy or adventurous American tourists gathered in the Paris of the 1920s, four are within one and one-half blocks of Hotel Le Royal.

The café Le Dôme is at the southwest corner of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail, opposing the Rotonde on the northwest corner. One block west, Le Select on the north opposes La Coupole on the south side of the boulevard.

Leaving Le Cottage, we walked back across the Boulevard Raspail, along the Boulevard du Montparnasse past Le Dôme, and entered La Coupole. When Françoise told the maître d' that we had come to see the 'La Ruche' exposition, we were welcomed into the main salon and encouraged to enjoy the La Ruche photographs .

Immediately upon entering the large room, I noticed the tops of the support columns of La Coupole. After the restaurant opened in 1927, many Montparnasse artists painted them in their unique styles. I pointed to them and Françoise indicated she also knows about them.

The interior glows with the polish and richness of what is truly one of the 'Grand Cafés.' It was about 14:30, but every table appeared to be full. The energy of people enjoying themselves is so appealing!

For me, it was a thrill to be inside this legendary place knowing that the artists and writers who frequented it still influence our world. After seeing how beautiful and stimulating La Coupole is, it becomes clear why they used it as a living room.

The La Ruche photography exposition was wonderful! Black and white photographs by modern master Daniel Lebée are closely spaced all around the perimeter of the dining room. They contrast enough with the rich colors of the space to make them stand out.

The frames coordinated perfectly with the room, while focusing attention on the images. The pictures are ofphoto: francoise outside la ruche La Ruche and its ateliers. They are so well printed that they are not only beautiful as art objects, but allowed us to have an intimate sense of being there. The only limitation was that we could not linger at each one because we had to look across tables where people were dining, so we kept moving. This also helped to keep us to keep to our full schedule.

Françoise outside the somewhat formidable entry of 'La Ruche.'

Leaving La Coupole, we walked west on the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Rue du Montparnasse, where we turned south to see a gallery that was recommended to Françoise. Unfortunately, the art was not to either of our tastes, so we quickly left.

The good thing about this side trip was the discovery of 'la rue de la crêpes,' which is what Françoise calls the Rue du Montparnasse. Ironically, the day before, I was wandering around Les Halles trying to find a crêpes stand - while there are so many crêpes restaurants right near my hotel.

We walked back along the boulevard to Raspail where Françoise had parked her car. From there we drove along the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, then zig- zagged through several streets until we came to the Place de Catalogne.

Before she retired Françoise had her office there, overlooking the fountain. It is a visually arresting fountain - a large, flat circle of light toned, rough textured paving stones maybe a couple of hundred feet in diameter, lying on the slope of the hill. In warmer weather, water would pour from the upper edge of the circle down the large flat surface, burbling along the uneven stones.

The roundabout circling the fountain became a gentle introduction to Parisian-style driving. The circle was not crowded with cars at that time of day, so it was only a little more exciting than driving in America.

What I saw was not an aggressive, macho-based challenge to other drivers, but a purposeful determination to quickly get from one place to another. Drivers alternately yielded or got out of the way in a cooperative fashion that was just perceptible to me.

While continuously talking to herself, the other drivers, and me, Françoise drove steadily and appeared confident of the movement of other vehicles and pedestrians. I believe it wasphoto: doorway, caryatids only her concentration, judgment, and excellent hand-eye coordination that prevented a 'massacre à la moderne.'

We left the Place de Catalogne via the Boulevard Pasteur, leading across the south side of Gare Montparnasse, going from arrondissement 14 to 15. Continuing southwest past Parc George Brassens we reached La Ruche at 2. Passage de Dantzig, just off the Rue de Dantzig.

The doorway flanked by caryatids.

Parking was another adventure. I was astonished that Françoise attempted to park in a space that looked shorter than her medium-sized SUV. After her truck was snugly against the curb, I got out and saw that her skills are amazing. There were two or three inches between each of her bumpers and the other cars.

I attempted a complete sentence in French. "C'est un miracle!" She laughed and said, "Non," indicating that she has strong arms from parking.

Archipenko, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz, Soutine, Zadkine and many, many other artists and writers began their careers in Paris while working, living, or both, at La Ruche. In the first years of the 20th century, the sculptor Alfred Boucher was grateful for his life as an artist and wanted others to have the same opportunity.

He utilized leftover elements from the 1900 Paris World Exposition to assemble a collection of ateliers. Among other architectural components, the main building had been the Bordeaux wine pavilion designed by Eiffel, the front gate came from the Women's Pavilion, and the caryatids on each side of the building's entrance were from the British India Pavilion. La Ruche - the beehive - as it came to be known, opened in 1902.

Because Boucher was not always insistent on rent being paid, it became the first stop of the poorest artists, especially those from Eastern Europe. There is a story of Chaim Soutine arriving at Gare du Nord with no money, and only a piece of paper with the address of La Ruche. Zadkine said it was an 'evil Brie cheese,' where each artist's piece was an atelier with a narrow point at one end and a large window at the other. This came from the round shape of the building with a central stairwell and the ateliers radiating out from it.

Many other artists and writers who did not live there, such as Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Modigliani, Rousseau, and Salmon, frequented the place, cross-fertilizing creative talents.

La Ruche declined under Vichy, recovered after World War II, but by the time of the 1968 real estate boom, wasphoto: stairway threatened with demolition. With the support of Alexander Calder, René Char, Jean Renoir and Jean-Paul Sartre - Elisabeth Dujarric and Simone Dat took over the management in 1971, and have kept it in the spirit of Boucher.

An interior stairway leading up to - a sunflower.

As a private enterprise, La Ruche is not open to the public. However, Françoise had arranged entry and a tour for us. The building is in wonderful condition. We were both thrilled to be inside, where many of the great artists lived, worked, played, challenged and inspired each other. Later, we intended to see the Luxembourg exhibition of one of these, Modigliani.

Our next foray was from the southwest edge of Paris to the first arrondissement and the Café Metropole Club meeting, where we met Linda Thalman and Joe Fitzgerald. We all enjoyed our time together, and I was glad to see how much Françoise enjoyed talking with Linda. Linda also translated between us.

As we left, the beautiful sunset over the dome of the Institut de France reminded me of how late it was. I was concerned about getting to the Modigliani exhibition before it closed. On the way to the underground parking place of Françoise's car, we walked by the front of the Saint-Germain-L'Auxerrois church. Leaving the parking garage, we drove east on the Quai de la Mégisserie, crossed the Pont au Change, took the Boulevard du Palais and then crossed the Pont Saint-Michel.

A right turn on the Quai des Grand Augustins and then a quick left plunged us into Saint-Germain, where we zig-zagged along various narrow streets, viewing the art galleries and antique stores as we waited in stalled traffic.

As we drove west on Rue de Vaugirard, we saw that the exhibition had a long line, but that the Musée du Luxembourg was still open. How civilized to keep a major art exhibition open past six on a weekday evening! Once again, the parking miracle was performed. We then walked back along Vaugirard to the museum entry.

The Modigliani exposition is entitled 'Un Visage Grave' - 'A Serious Face.' Modigliani was considered one of the three most handsome men in Montparnasse in the second decade of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he was progressively better known for being drunk and unpleasant. His frequent trouble with others is consistent with patterns of disfunctionalism.

He is not seen smiling in photographs of the period. His love, Jeanne Héburterne, was not photographed smiling either. She grew up in a strict religious family and was known for the detached look in her eyes, as if she were permanently disassociated.

Midway through the exhibit, Françoise pointed out how sad all the portraits are. I saw it, too. All the subjects are sad.

Also, I noted that the characteristic elongated appearance of the faces, necks, and bodies are similar to Modigliani's, and different from his French and Scandinavian models. Yet, he painted them all alike. It would be interesting to do a psychological study of artists. Would there be common patterns and similar inspirations? Would different periods display the same patterns?

An interesting sidelight was the discovery that Billy Klüver is listed on the Scientific Committee of the exposition as 'Historian of Montparnasse.' His co-author and wife is Julie Martin. She was a lecturer at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth a few years ago, during the exposition of the Paul Guillaume Collection from the Orangerie.

Billy Klüver's career as an engineer collaborating with artists is fascinating. The couple have written definitivephoto: club group, francoise, linda, joe books about the artists of Montparnasse. In a further coincidence, the Kimball has an exhibition entitled 'Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse' - from February 9 until May 25 this year.

Club group on 9. January - from left, Françoise, Linda and Joe. Guillaume is behind the flash.

Although the evening came to an end as adventures always do, it will long be in my memory. Paris, of course, will always be a grand presence. The things I did will be remembered and will inform my future interests.

But more than them, the people I met will be my souvenirs and will influence my feelings of Paris. I shall long remember an intelligent American man and a very clever American woman in the Café La Corona. And what a gift to be in the presence of a sophisticated, charming and intelligent Parisienne for an afternoon and evening!

But there was little time for reflection because this was Paris, and Françoise had ballet tickets for us at the Opéra Bastille on Saturday night.

La Ruche Centennial Celebration includes seven expositions and a 'grand rendez-vous' at La Coupole, an exposition and 'grand rendez-vous' at the Alliance Française, five expositions at the bookstore Le Divan, an exposition at the Musée du Montparnasse - and tours of La Ruche in conjunction with the old book market at the Parc George Brassens on one weekend. Included are group and individual expositions of current artists of La Ruche. These are on various dates to the end of September. For more information go to La Ruche Web site.

The Modigliani exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg continues through Sunday, 2. March. More information is at the Senat's Web site for the Modigliani show.

Text and photos: Guillaume©2003
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