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Paris Left & Right Bank - Bateau Lavoir & Pablo Picasso's Guernica

Picasso on the Right Bank - Bateau Lavoir

There were two gravitational pulls for the École de Paris painters who flourished from the early 1900s until the outbreak of World War II: Montparnasse and Montmartre. The #12 metro line terminated at both places and today you can still see these landmarks written above tunnel arches along the line in the trademark blue tiles. In the early days of the 20th century it was the cobblestones and windmills of Montmartre that won out, with its laid back tempo up on the hill, more countryside village than bustling metropolis, and typified by the Bateau Lavoir. Picasso first climbed the hill of Montmartre in 1902 at the tender age of 19, hanging his hat at the Bateau Lavoir before quickly going on to be largely responsible for the reputation of this communal art workshop where he painted his Rose period classic Boy With a Pipe and the ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Made up of 20 small studios and lodgings, the French poet Max Jacob gave the hangout its distinctive “washboat” name as the walls and roof of the old house seemed to heave with gusts of wind blowing down the hill. Long before they could make rent, a legion of artists and writers passed through the Bateau Lavoir, including Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen and Guillaume Apollinaire. Slowly encumbered by the growing popularity of the butte and the increasing footfall of curious visitors, Picasso decamped from Montmartre to the Left Bank in 1912, and while the Bateau Lavoir’s heyday was just a short period of 10 years, the group lived on as an honorary club to which almost a hundred artists and writers claimed allegiance. Today the Place Émile-Goudeau is an oasis of almost monotone calm and the modest little building restored in 1978 has an inconspicuous Ville de Paris plaque outside with a small glass window display showing photographs from the period. It could be argued there is little to see here and perhaps therein lies the charm of this quiet, verdant and somewhat off-the-beaten-path slice of art history, recalling the extraordinary alchemical powers of artists who came together under one roof, a crucible of brave new thoughts, and with the passion to change how people saw the world.

Bateau Lavoir, Place Émile-Goudeau, 75018.

Picasso on the Left Bank - Guernica

It never ceases to amaze how many works of creation can come out of such a small area, even those that appear to have no connection at all with the Left Bank. Perhaps one of the best examples of the area’s contribution to world heritage is the work that Pablo Picasso created over the period of 6 months at #7 Rue des Grands-Augustins, a stonesthrow from the Seine. In an interesting twist of foreshadowing fate, this very address was the house used by the writer Honoré de Balzac for the setting of his famous short story “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”. Written in 1831 and set in 1612, it tells the tale of an artist who laboured for 10 years to complete his masterpiece. After finally finishing the work, the non-plussed reaction of friends (including Nicolas Poussin) cause him to lose his mind and destroy the painting, depriving the world of the greatest work of art ever created. In 1936, one hundred years after the publication of the original story, and in one of the great artistic ironies of all time, Picasso set up his studio in the exact same building used in the story. Soon afterwards, he started unleashing his forces on the seminal anti-war statement that is Guernica. Measuring 25ft by 11ft, the monumental masterpiece depicted the aftermath and scenes of carnage laid upon the Basque town of Guernica following repeated aerial bombings by Nazi and Italian warplanes in the spring of 1937. The work was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris that same year and was subsequently toured around the world to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War and raise funds for war relief. Asked to explain the painting Picasso is quoted as saying “It isn’t up to the artist to define the symbols” and the power of the work itself proved true another of his famous sayings: “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. Picasso would keep his studio in the building for almost another twenty years and today you will see a timeworn plaque to the right of the entrance gates at #7 commemorating the location of this unique example of art imitating life imitating art. 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins, 75006.

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