The Museum of Old Montmartre

The Museum of Old Montmartre is a fine little museum housed in a large complex of buildings on the Rue Cortot.  The house that forms the core of the complex was built in the mid-17th century an actor and playwright.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the house on the Rue Cortot was extensively sub-divided, and its tiny rooms became preferred lodging for artists in Montmartre, a hill near what is now the northern perimeter of Paris proper.  Back then, Montmartre was still rural.  Chickens squawked in the streets, urchins scampered around looking for odd jobs, and plumbing was nonexistent.  Artists moved into in Montmartre’s shabby, muddy streets to escape Paris’ high rents.  Dancing establishments and interestingly questionable bars soon followed, and the sleazy, enchanting Montmartre that we see in Toulouse-Lautrec’s sketches was born. 

This museum is another charming, idiosyncratic Paris museum.  It’s cramped and crammed.  There are no audioguides or interactive touchscreens.  The core of the museum’s permanent collection is devoted to the people who lived in one of the house’s many rooms at one time or another in the late 19th and early 20th century.  These residents comprise a cross-section of artists both world-famous (Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo; very tangentially Auguste Renoir) and less so (Emile Bernard, Francisque Poulbot).  Many of the paintings and sketches from these lesser lights crackle with vitality and wit, and you’ll wonder why you don’t know their names.  One room is dedicated to the indescribably voluptuous Suzanne Valadon, a longtime resident of the house.  She started her career as a model, continued it as an object of devotion (from, among others, the world’s oddest man, French composer Erik Satie), and finished it as an accomplished painter.

Other parts of the museum evoke the neighborhood in general.  Several vitrines feature invitations to the various dance-halls and theatres, every one is a whimsical, irreverent masterpiece.  Especially cool is the invitation to the show featuring the “Hanging Man,” a hunger-artist like fellow.  His specialty was odd physical feats: standing absolutely still on top of a pedestal for a month, or locking himself in a box and not eating or drinking for three weeks.  He came to Montmartre and remained hanging from a rope for 13 straight days.  The invitation features 13 silhouettes showing his body stretching further and further downward and a tongue protruding ever farther from his mouth.  Another room features a pewter bar rescued from a famous Montmarte dive, an exhibition dedicated to André Malraux and his relationship with a modern Greek artist who lived in the house during much of the 20th century, and a film about Montmartre in general.

The funniest exhibit is a bust of the French Catholic novelist and pamphleteer Leon Bloy, surrounded with excerpts from his letters.  Bloy’s home in another part of Montmartre was condemned to make room for the Sacre-Coeur cathedral, and he was forced to move his family into the house at 12 Rue Cortot in 1906.  He hated it: the concierge insulted his family as “those Jesuits” behind his back, atheist dress-shop employees who lived on the other side of the courtyard mocked his daughters when they practiced singing their confirmation hymns, and the rooms stank and crawled with vermin.  Bloy finally gathered the means to leave, and bid farewell to the house “pledged to the Devil.”

Anyone can love the Museum of Old Montmartre, but it’s even better for people who can read French, since most of the exhibits are not translated.  I left feeling a strong sense of nostalgia for a place I’d never been, and what higher praise can there be for a museum?

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