Artistic Community and Urban Development in 1920s Montmartre

Article excerpt

By the 1920s, the physical transformation in the urban space of Montmartre led two groups of artists to "secede" from the city of Paris, at least in spirit. Calling themselves the Commune Libre de Montmartre and the Republique de Montmartre, these painters, illustrators, poets, writers, and musicians articulated a distinctive community-based identity centered around mutual aid, sociability, and limiting urban development. They also reached out to the poor of the neighborhood through charity efforts, thus linking their fates with those of other area residents. Through these organizations, neighborhood artists came to terms with the changes taking place in the city of Paris in the 1920s by navigating between nostalgia and modernism. They sought to keep alive an older vision of the artists' Montmartre while adapting to the new conditions of the post-World War I city.

Keywords: Paris, Montmartre, artists, urban history, gentrification


On 11 April 1920, a handful of artists--probably just four or five, none of them well known to posterity--gathered in the Lapin Agile, the famous cabaret, and founded an organization they called the Commune Libre de Montmartre. (1) Together, they declared that this artists' bohemian neighborhood would secede from the municipality of Paris and form a town of its own. The cabal was led by the caricaturist, poet, and humorist Jules Depaquit, who became the leader of the new association and the self-proclaimed "mayor" of the Commune Libre. Also present at or near the beginning of the Commune Libre were the poet Maurice Halle and the poet and chansonnier Roger Toziny, both of whom copublished the satirical newspaper La Vache enragee, which became the Commune Libre's main outlet. The other crucial personality was Frederic Gerard (affectionately known as "Frede"), the owner of the Lapin Agile, where the group would regularly meet. As the memoirist Jean Emile-Bayard described the events, "Depaquit and his civil staff desired only that Montmartre, the fatherland of all artists, which had its temples, its windmills, its vineyards, its concerts, its theatres, its circuses, its cinemas, its dance-halls, and its church, should have a 'Town' to itself." (2)

Founding the Commune Libre followed in the tradition of the comic gesture for which many of Montmartre's artists were already famous. In fin-de-siecle Paris, for instance, several artists once attached a paintbrush to a donkey's tail and placed a canvas behind the animal so it could produce a work of "art." As a prank, they entered the donkey's effort in the Salon des Independants to show their contempt for the contemporary art world. (3) Likewise, the creation of the Commune Libre de Montmartre was also a clever joke that, as we will see, criticized larger cultural issues of the day. The neighborhood "elections" that the Commune Libre held shortly after its founding were also clearly done in jest, and the ensuing "political rallies" were actually more like neighborhood fairs. "It was a bloodless revolution," as Emile-Bayard described the event, "a coup d'etat carried out amidst gaiety and laughter, giving rise to fetes and all kinds of entertainments." (4) And the founders of the Commune Libre were not the only ones engaging in this kind of humorous political theater either. A year after the Commune Libre declared Montmartre's independence from Paris, another group of artists (also largely forgotten) created a similar association, the Republique de Montmartre, designed to expand the frivolity even further. That group liked to dress in Revolutionary outfits, hold pageants in which they selected a woman to represent Marianne, and attend large banquets with all their artist friends. In Montmartre, the fun never seemed to stop.

But underneath the humor, there was a more serious purpose to these groups. In particular, their desire for independence was a response to changes in the physical space of the city that surrounded them. …