Shadow and substance

From the balcony Marya could see one side of the Place Blanche. Opposite, the Rue Lepic mounted upwards to the rustic heights of Montmartre.

From her balcony in the Hotel de l’Univers, Marya’s view is elevated. She can look over the rooftops and down to the Place Blanche and beyond, across the rooftops of the city. She can watch the lights coming out and the movement of the streets below. The hill of Montmartre provides a vantage point. This perspective reflects the sense of Montmartre as distinct, set apart from Paris, its history and status.

Montmartre is described as ‘rustic’ reflecting its rural village history. Walking around Montmartre today there is still a sense of this in its picturesque lanes, although the area has seen significant changes following its annexation to Paris in 1860. The area retains physical traces of its windmills, vineyards and quarries. Artists were drawn to Montmartre for its picturesque scenery and the quality of the light, as well as for its radical spirit of creative freedom. My history of Montmartre as presented here, its locations and inhabitants, is indebted to the exhibits of the Musée de Montmartre, which tell the story of the area through its collections of paintings, photographs, and artefacts.

From the 1860’s onwards, Montmartre was radically transformed and saw a huge influx of people drawn by cheaper rents and sense of freedom. The area known as the Maquis, was an immense shantytown made up of shelters and huts, a waste ground with a network of paths and inhabited by an outsider population. The Maquis eventually disappeared to make way for the Avenue Junot, one of the grand avenues that exemplify modern Paris. Montmartre was a key site in the Paris Commune of 1870 heralded by writers such as Rimbaud and Verlaine. The construction of the Sacré Coeur was incredibly controversial and seen by many as an attempt to impose control on the radical and resistant Montmartre.

It was astonishing how significant, coherent and understandable it all became after a glass of wine on an empty stomach. The lights winking up at a pallid moon, the slender painted ladies, the wings of the Moulin Rouge, the smell of petrol and perfume and cooking.

The presence of artists and the creation of artistic movements helped create the legend of Montmartre and its reputation in the collective imagination as socialist, bohemian, anti-bourgeois. In their quest for artistic freedom, the artists chose to move to Montmartre to represent new, marginal and popular themes: workers, clowns, singers, songwriters and prostitutes became modern symbolic figures in their works. They chose to portray the scenes of everyday life around them, and these scenes of everyday life are what Marya observes from her balcony. The smells of petrol and perfume and cooking in Rhys’s description attest to the vivid sense of daily life in Montmartre.

Montmartre became known for its dance halls and artistic cabarets, and for the original posters and popular art through which they were portrayed. The presence of the cabarets in turn fostered collaborations and encounters between artists, musicians and writers. The Moulin de la Galette was immortalised in Renoir’s painting, Bal au Moulin de la Galette. The last working windmill of the area was transformed by its owner in 1834 into a hugely popular dance hall. The Lapin Agile cabaret, once a place of ill repute, is the oldest cabaret still open in Paris today.

The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889. The artist Adolphe Willette was commissioned to design the cabaret, creating a life size magenta windmill, an enormous dance floor and galleries, a series of mirrors, and a life size model elephant in the gardens.

The Chat Noir cabaret was known for its shadow theatre in which a series of animated images of figures and landscapes made from zinc plates, were used to create a performance of silhouettes, screens and coloured lights. The shadow theatre pioneered many cinematic techniques and ideas, using movement, colour, light and sound to portray dramatic and visionary performances; a dreamlike aesthetic which influenced many artists.

“Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted.

A dream. A dream. ‘La vie route faite des morceaux. Sans suite comme des reves.’ Who wrote that? Gauguin. ‘Sans suite comme des reves.’ A dream. Long shining empty streets and tall dark houses looking down at her.”

It was raining and the lights of the Moulin Rouge shone redly through a mist: Salle de danse, Revue.

The Place Blanche, sometimes so innocently sleepy of an afternoon, was getting ready for the night’s work. People hurried along cowering beneath their umbrellas, and the pavements were slippery and glistening, with pools of water here and there, sad little mirrors which the reflections of the lights tinted with a dull point of red. The trees along the Boulevard Clichy stretched ridiculously frail and naked arms to a sky without stars.

On Place Blanche, I am watching groups of tourists of groups of tourists embarking to see the legendary Moulin Rouge, to have a photograph taken. The Boulevard de Clichy is a constant flow of traffic in the rain. In the daylight, this part of Paris can look as though it has seen better times, seedy and down at heel.

The Place Blanche, Paris. Life itself. One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance. All sorts of things.

In the Musée de Montmartre, the collection of postcards and photographs of the most popular dancers of the time fascinate me. Quartet portrays the night life of Paris, its theatres, dance halls and cafes. Marya admires the dancers and musicians, the ‘vagabond nights’ and the life of the city. Rhys writes of the importance of illusion, the shadow and the substance. There is a sense that Marya is living under an illusion in her life with Stephan in Paris, one that she prefers to maintain.

From her balcony in the Rue Cauchois, the lights of the Moulin Rouge are a constant presence, along with the movement of people in the Place Blanche.

Walking around Montmartre now, with darkness falling, the lights everywhere, and even in the busiest streets – the Rue Lepic, the Place Blanche – among the bustle and tourists; I still feel a sense of what it was like when Rhys walked the same streets. In the buildings and cobbled streets, the lit lamps, and the staircases carry a shadow and atmosphere.

The Place Blanche, Paris. Life itself.