For Art’s Sake

Quasi-Bohemian Days of Grad School

I may not be  a sentimentalist, but I am a romantic. I love art and music and poetry and books written about the early 1900s in Paris.

Particularly, Montmartre and Montparnasse, where artists and poets and musicians lived, worked, starved, smoked hashish, drank absinthe and, tragically, died of tuberculosis.

I’ve just finished reading Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest. I now know more about that horrible disease than I ever thought I would. The terrible pain, paroxysms of coughing, spontaneous hemorrhaging of blood through the mouth, the migration of the disease to the bones and the brain. Many artists and poets self-medicated with drink and hashish to mitigate the pain, from which there was no relief.

Incurable at the time, TB killed so many creative people. As I read, I couldn’t help relating it to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Women loved him —  all 5’3″ of him

In the first ten years or so of the 20th century, Modigliani hung out at The Lapin Agile with the rest of the artists.

The Lapin Agile was frequented by the likes Picasso, Gris, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain, Picabia, van Dongen, Degas, Duchamp…it’s staggering to think that all these incredible artists were in Paris at the same time.

Around 1910, the art scene moved to Montparnasse, as scenes are wont to do. The new gathering place for artists was now a café called the Rotunde. Poets came, too. Apollinaire, one of them — who, shockingly, served in WWI and died of a head wound, as a result. Braque served in the war, too, and also suffered a head wound, which almost cost him his sight.

Also at the Rotunde: Diego Rivera, Léger, Max Jacob, Brancusi…the list goes on.

Typically, an artist arriving at 8:00 a.m. would find a cozy place to warm his hands, eat the free bread, sketch, and nurse a single cup of coffee for the entire day and into the next, unmolested.

The Paris scene reminds me a bit of Soho (NYC) in the late 60s and 70s, back when it was still gritty and industrial and interesting and Trump-less and empty of chain stores, with graffiti everywhere:

Secrest’s book is painstakingly researched, never pedantic or boring. If you are an art lover and like to fantasize about Paris during this time period — it focuses on the years right before Hemingway’s Paris in “A Moveable Feast” — and share an appreciation of Modigliani’s painting (he was one of my favorite artists in high school, during my “portrait” period), you will also enjoy this book.

I’d like to share this excerpt from page 42. The scene takes place in the late 1800s (a bit of backstory), and features three friends: poets Shelley, Byron and Keats ( ! ):

“Early in July 1822, Shelley set sail in a new boat, the Ariel, built for him by Byron, fast and luxurious but an open craft with no deck. He made the fifty-mile trip to Leghorn in about seven hours, and stayed for a week. Then he, a friend Lieutenant Edward Williams, and an eighteen-year-old cabin boy set out on the return journey. There was a violent storm. The boat capsized and all three were drowned. Their bodies washed up on the beach at Viareggio ten days later and were cremated on the spot, with Byron in attendance. Shelley’s partially decomposed body was recognized by a book of Keats’s poetry that was found in his pocket.”

I hope this passage moves you as it did me.

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