At the dawn of the 20th century the Parisian district of Montmartre was still largely rural, a hillside village dotted with windmills, vineyards and tumbledown shacks.
There, a ragtag band of young artists, many of them foreigners, gravitated to the district’s cheap studios and galleries to nurture their artistic ambitions and, at night, divert themselves at its seedy bars and cabarets.
Their ranks included the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Kees van Dongen, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque and Amedeo Modigliani, to name just a few, and by now, more than a century on, their stories have been told many times.
In her latest book, “In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art,” the British writer Sue Roe offers a lively and concise account of their lives during a 10-year period when they struggled to find new ways to express themselves and, in the process, rocked the foundations of Western art. It was a time when beauty itself “was open to redefinition,” Roe writes in a chapter describing Picasso’s momentous first encounter with African art in the Musee du Trocadero.
Like her previous book on the Impressionists, “In Montmartre” is a bit of a group biography, focusing mainly on a half-dozen artists and weaving in details about friends, families and business associates.
While she doesn’t break much new ground, she’s very good at synthesizing and distilling complicated art movements and ideas without getting bogged down in technical details or jargon. And she offers up plenty of juicy tidbits about the artists’ love affairs, infidelities, opium parties and eccentric habits.
Also, Roe gives the women in the story their due, not just the artists but also the models and muses. We get vivid portraits of the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein, her companion Alice B. Toklas and some lesser-known figures in the Montmartre crowd, including Picasso’s model and lover Fernande Olivier, who wrote memoirs of their life together, and the French painter Marie Laurencin.
Roe’s book is a great introduction to one of the most pivotal periods in 20th century art. Even those familiar with the era will likely find that it broadens their understanding of key players and events. And for art lovers who can’t get enough of this intoxicating decade in Paris on the eve of the First World War, the lengthy bibliography will suggest new avenues for exploration.