I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970. That’s longer than most of my neighbors have been on this Earth.
Back in those days, the Musée de Montmartre was just a little house built in the 17th century. That house has a name, the Maison du Bel Air (House of Fresh Air) and originally came complete with a vineyard, which is still there, next door but now separate. The house was bought in 1680 by the successor to Molière, famous French actor and playwright Rosimonde, as his country home (at a time when Paris was far away by carriage).
Centuries later, the little house is still there, now reputedly the oldest building in Montmartre, and is used for the museum’s permanent collection.
But the building through which you enter, once in bad shape and uninhabited for decades, has now been totally renovated - in the style of the era though! - and houses the museum’s temporary exhibits.
This season it’s Kees Van Dongen, another Dutchman who moved to Paris, as did Jongkind, Van Gogh, and Mondrian.
Invited by Picasso, Van Dongen moved into the now-famous Bateau-Lavoir, a long wooden building where artists lived and painted, side by side, in cramped, cold quarters. Together, the two shared artistic inspirations, such as the various balls but also the Cirque Médrano, a circus that’s now disappeared but was still there when I moved to Montmartre. (The two artists also shared women, including Fernande, who was Picasso’s mistress when they met... before becoming Van Dongen’s.)
Like many of his era, Van Dongen shows his classical training in his early works. It served him well even once he had changed to his new love, fauvism, with its bright colors and the opulent silhouettes that were a slap in the face of his old friend Picasso’s cubism. Sometimes his canvases seem unfinished, with those bright colors forming only a sort of frame around the subject, and both standing out against a blank background.
His wide-ranging styles are obvious in one corner of the main floor where there are three very different works from one year, 1906. Chinagrani, on the left, is a very minimalist depiction of the dancer of that name, all in blue and elongated. On the other end is Le Cirque, an example of his colorful fauvist talent. Between the two, Aux Folies Bergère is pure Impressionism.
Also on this first floor, in a little alcove, are some works by his good friend Otto van Rees, including a lovely one of his lover, Adya in the Bateau-Lavoir (1904).
In La Parisienne, the woman’s hands are painted in a much more traditional style, while her face is minimalist and one-dimensional. Perhaps that is what he called primitivism?
In addition to his paintings, Van Dongen made a living from illustrations sold to various magazines throughout his career. He was also in demand by authors, including Proust, who wanted him to illustrate their works. Some of his creations are included in this exhibit.
Most of the works come from private collections, but also from museums in Paris and Holland (Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam). As with the Mary Cassatt exhibit at Musée Jacquemart-André, it’s a treat to have the chance to see works that have never before co-existed in one place - including in the artist’s studio, given that they date from different eras.
The exhibit is small, as befits the setting. But it offers a good representation of Van Dongen’s successive styles and periods.
Two “asides” to this visit. One is a parenthesis: Otto van Rees. The other, at the end of the exhibit, is a visit of Suzanne Valadon’s actual studio. She, too, was one of the beauties Van Dongen pursued.
Van Dongen & the Bateau-Lavoir
Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro: Abbesses or Lamarck-Caulincourt
Until August 26, 2018
Daily 10-7 / closes at 6 pm Oct-March
9.50-12 & 7.50-9 €, free under age 10