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Artful Montmartre

Beyond tourist crowds lie glimpses of Paris' historic painters' quarter.

March 09, 2003|Barbara A. Noe | Special to The Times

Paris — Sitting high on a wall in Montmartre with all of Paris at my feet, I watched an elderly woman emerge through her garden gate on the street just below, struggling with a bulky load of canvases, a folded-up chair and an easel. Stealthily I followed her, up tiny Rue des Saules and its vine-draped shops and restaurants, up Avenue Junot, where, at 10 a.m., tourists were just beginning to converge.

I followed her to Place du Tertre and had a little laugh. This old village square, as charming as can be, is hands-down one of Paris' most touristy sites. Artists set up their easels here daily, enticing tourists with images of the city.

On previous visits to Paris, my disdain of crowds, especially tourist crowds, kept me away from this historic hilltop quarter with its old-fashioned feel.

But on this drizzly day last November, with talk of war with Iraq and the worsening tensions between France and the U.S., I felt far away from the world's woes, content to believe that I had found a true local artist. She seemed to give a speck of authenticity to the stories I'd read about Montmartre's arty heyday.

From 1860 until the 1950s, the heavyweights of the art world -- Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Modigliani, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec -- flocked to this provincial quarter, lured by low rents, fine light, cafes and plenty of tawdry brothels and cabarets (including the Moulin Rouge). In creaky old ateliers, these artists gave birth to Impressionism, Postimpressionism and Cubism, catapulting Paris to the pinnacle of the art world.

Who wouldn't be inspired by this quarter atop Paris' highest hill? Away from its touristic core, diminutive lanes edge flower-adorned, tumbledown houses; steep stone steps lead to hidden cobbled squares; and jaw-dropping views of the city wait around every turn. It wouldn't seem far-fetched to come upon Maurice Utrillo sitting on a street corner, capturing the cabaret Au Lapin Agile in oils. Or Pablo Picasso stomping down a narrow sidewalk, contemplating his next move in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which he painted here in 1907, ushering in the age of modern art.

I realized, as I stood on touristy Place du Tertre, that there are two Montmartres: the tourist attraction with its postcard stalls, ersatz artists and Americanized menus, and the small medieval hilltop village, colloquially called La Butte, to this day an artist's inspiration.

And so, on a different day, I decided to return with some Parisian friends, Gerard and Muguette Dubois, to seek out the second Montmartre, the old Montmartre of artists -- La Butte.

From Montmartre's most recognizable site, the bone-white Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, with its grandiose Byzantine domes looming over the capital, we ambled down Rue St. Pierre and Rue du Mont Cenis to a modest square lined with picturesque buildings. A plaque on one, Les Coulisses restaurant, indicated that painter Suzanne Valadon and her son, Utrillo, dined here often between 1919 and 1935.

Close by stands the Romanesque St. Pierre de Montmartre, one of the oldest churches in Paris with parts that date from the 12th century, though you wouldn't know it from its severe 19th century facade. We saw a nun heave open the big wooden door and, curious, followed her inside. Sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows into the Gothic nave, its stone walls aglow with white light, arches curving gracefully overhead. I looked closer and noticed the walls seemed to bend inward.

"The tunnels and quarries beneath the church undermine it," Muguette whispered in response to my perplexed look. Gypsum and limestone have been mined from deep within the butte since Roman times, one of the reasons why developers have not built here. Suddenly fearful that the historic building might collapse, I felt the need to leave.

Perfect light, and tourists

Thus boned up on the area's ancient history, we proceeded to Place du Tertre and its pageantry of artists (no more than two per square meter by law). I spotted my woman artist gesturing to a baseball-capped visitor, her vibrant oil scenes of Provencal flowers apparently under discussion. Glimmering with fairy lights, shady plane trees and colorful old buildings -- mostly crowded tourist cafes and restaurants -- surround the square. It once drew artists for its optimum light; now the artists are lured by tourists in quest of souvenirs. Much of the artwork is negligible and many of the artists are not even French, but they keep alive, if superficially, the artistic reverie.

I followed my friends up Rue Poulbot to tiny Place du Calvaire, with a view over the city. And little by little, as we wandered off the beaten track, the second Montmartre began to emerge, the same Montmartre known by Monet, Pissarro and Picasso. I saw it in the peeling walls filigreed with ivy, in dark passageways leading who knows where, in pocket parks with mossy statues.

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