Academic journal article Urban History Review

Je Cherche Fortune: Identity, Counterculture, and Profit in Fin-De-Siecle Montmartre

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Je Cherche Fortune: Identity, Counterculture, and Profit in Fin-De-Siecle Montmartre

Article excerpt


This paper examines the Parisian neighbourhood of Montmartre during the 1880s and 1890s. Isolating themselves on a hilltop to the north of the city, a defiant community of painters and poets left the busy macadam below to position themselves physically and symbolically at the apex of anti-bourgeois, countercultural sentiment. Known for its subversive character, Montmartre's legacy appealed to these passionate and creative youths, and their appropriation of a semi-rural district on the fringes of the metropolitan centre of modernity symbolized their desire to escape stifling cultural traditions. Particularly revealing are the ways in which their art and literature represented at once a deeply interior questioning of identity as well as a loosely unified movement of cultural protest. By the turn of the 20th century, many of these artists and writers had been tamed by the commercialization of their nonconformity, but Montmartre remains a powerful site for the memory of its influential social and cultural transgressions.


Cet article se penche sur le quartier parisien de Montmartre durant les annees 1880 et 1890. En s'isolant sur le haut d'une colline au nord de la ville, une communaute de peintres et de poetes rebelles quitte le bruyant macadam pour se positionner physiquement et symboliquement au sommet de l'avant-garde anti-bourgeoise. A l'epoque, Montmartre est connu pour son beritage subversif, ce qui attire d'autant plus ces jeunes artistes creatifs et passionnes. Leur appropriation d'un espace encore relativement rural aux abords du centre metropolitain de la modernite symbolise leur desir d'echapper aux traditions culturelles etouffantes de leur temps. Les liens entre, d'une part, leur art et leur litterature, et d'autre part, l'expression a la fois interieure et collective d'une identite culturellement contestataire sont particulierement revelateurs. Au tournant du vingtieme siecle, plusieurs de ces artistes et ecrivains sont amadoues par la commercialisation de leur non-conformisme, mais Montmartre n'en demeure pas moins un site memorable d'influentes transgressions sociales et culturelles.


In the last 20 years of the 19th century, Montmartre's geographic location, on a hilltop high above the centre of Paris, appropriately symbolized the neighbourhood's position at the apex of anti-bourgeois, countercultural sentiment in Europe. "Montmartre, c'est la cime de Paris," suggested one artist who experienced the area's golden age. "C'est un point de vue hautain, a mi-chemin entre les hommes et Dieu." (1) Today most of the eclectic studios and rowdy cabarets that made the neighbourhood famous have either disappeared or been transformed into tourist attractions. In the densely urban streets, it is difficult to picture the fields and trees that gave Montmartre its celebrated rural charm. And yet the romantic appeal of Paris's 18th arrondissement remains strong. Every day, tour buses bring in droves of anxious visitors, eager to stroll through the narrow streets of the "Butte," perhaps dreaming of capturing a unique atmosphere created by painters discussing each other's works and absinthe-inspired poets lamenting their broken hearts. While architectural vestiges remain and commemorative plaques abound, the artificiality of luxury hotels and souvenir shops remind us that this special ambience may now exist only on movie screens. Indeed, recent cinematic productions set in that neighbourhood have met with considerable commercial success, indicating the enduring nostalgia for the Montmartre of bohemian artists and demonstrating the extent to which the community succeeded in leaving its mark on the popular culture of the past century. (2)

Since those halcyon days, visitors and scholars alike have been fascinated by Montmartre's place in turn-of-the-century cultural transformations. As historians Georges Renault and Henri Chateau wrote in 1897, "Quel sujet . …

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