October 28, 2012

"Autour du Chat Noir" Montmartre 1880-1910

Let's take a step back in time and return to the Paris of 1895.  It's evening, actually quite late, we've been eating and drinking and smoking and now we are sitting in a cabaret, listening to Yvette Guilbert singing "Je suis pocharde [I am a lush]" just before a chorus line of lovely ladies take the stage to perform the high kicking can-can with their frilly petticoats on full view.  The audience is thrilled and responds noisily.  Everyone is there - Jules Cheret, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Erik Satie, Aristide Bruant - all the luminaries who frequent the "boîtes de nuit" in Montmartre.

And there are many to chose from - Au Lapin Agile, Le Divan Japonais, Le Moulin Rouge - but the original, and one of the most popular, is Le Chat Noir, the Black Cat, a center for music and dancing since its inception in 1881 and the unofficial symbol of Turn-of-the-Century Montmartre.

Which brings me to the reason for this fantasy night out.  A very special exhibition is now on view at the delightful Musée de Montmartre that captures the esprit of this watershed period.  "Autour du Chat Noir:  Arts and Pleasures in Bohemian Montmartre" is an expansive look at the sights and sounds, the art and entertainment, the characters and the patrons of Fin-de-Siècle Paris.  Guest curated by Philip Dennis Cate, an expert in the field, and complemented with a plethora of first rate loans, this exhibition brings to life the "Gaité Parisienne" of the epoque.

I had never visited the Musée de Montmartre.  In fact it's an area that I usually try to avoid because of the crowds of tourists and those who prey upon them in the environs of Sacré Cœur.  But I had received an invitation to the opening of this show and though I could not attend the party, I was very keen to see the exhibition.  So on a fine Sunday in October, I took two buses across Paris to the base of Mont Cenis and walked up the steep incline to rue Cortot.  Housed in the former studio of Renoir and bordering the last remaining vineyard in Paris, is an absolute jewel of a museum dedicated to preserving the art and history of Montmartre.

Founded in 1960, the museum has recently come under new management who have undertaken an extensive renovation of the house and gardens and the inaugural exhibition "Autour du Chat Noir" is a perfect way to celebrate the revival of this historic property.

When impresario Rodolphe Salis first opened Le Chat Noir, in two small rooms at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart in the heart of bohemian Montmartre, he could not have imagined that its impact would be felt to this day.  Apart from being the first modern cabaret where patrons sat at tables and drank bad wine while enjoying live entertainment on a stage, Le Chat Noir inspired artists and performers whose work lives on to this day.  Like, for instance, the iconic poster art of Steinlen, Ibels and Toulouse-Lautrec, or the singing and dancing of Jane Avril, La Goulue and Loïe Fuller.

Three and a half years later, Le Chat Noir moved to larger, more luxurious quarters in a former mansion at 12 rue Victor Masse (see right) where it became an even bigger draw and a hub for "modern" art.  Paris at that time was a magnet for artists and writers who sought to challenge established ideas and traditional expression and thus a breeding ground for avant-garde movements such as Impressionists, Symbolists and the proto-Dada group known as the Incohérents. 

With over 200 works on display from ephemera to paintings, and a whole room devoted to the marvelous shadow theater cut-outs of Henri Rivière, this exhibition brings to life the energy and excitement of the era.  I was looking forward to visiting this show but I was not prepared for how completely fascinating and transporting the experience would be.  It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in Vieux Montmartre!

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