A Pair of Nude Twenty Years

photo: gallery visitors

This is only a fraction of 'Toute Montparnasse' at the exhibition's wine-and-cheese opening.

Where Else? In Montparnasse

Paris:- Thursday, 4. May 2000:- Two things - that I know of - happened. Lucile called me up and said I should go to the opening of the new exhibition at the Chemin du Montparnasse. This is the place that changed its name from Musée du Montparnasse.

The other thing that happened was the Chemin du Montparnasse sending me an invitation to go to the event Lucile thought I should attend.

For a long time I have been thinking, although Montparnasse is famous, it has no centre of focus. Since the Musée du Montparnasse began serious operation a few years ago I have been hoping that it would take on this role - and now it looks like it is on the move.

After this afternoon's meeting of the Café Metropole Club, I have about two hours to set up its 'report' and fiddle with its photos. Then I have time to gobble a half-kilo slice of Tarte Normande, and off I go.

I save a métro ticket by walking down the Avenue du Maine to the Gare Montparnasse and across its front to the continuing Avenue du Maine on the other side. The weather is spring and the light is soft.

The only speck on this clean window is the big camera's batteries still re-charging, back in 'Ed's' office. This is a sharp reminder to do the re-charge before every other Thursday's club meeting.

Surprisingly, the first-generation QuickTake camera's batteries - last re-charged last summer - are still alive. The photos are not going to be good, but they were 'good-enough' for four years so tonight's will have to do.

The Chemin du Montparnasse is in an alley off the Avenue du Maine. Outside, on the sidewalk, there is no sign of anything happening.

Inside, the old ateliers are almost hidden under greenery running wild. At the far end of the cobbly cobble-stoned alley, there are some people. Up closephoto: drawing, photo it is a huge mob. Finally: it is 'Toute Montparnasse!'

Actually, I probably saw a similar crowd last winter at the Musée Zadkine, on a night after a club meeting. Except I didn't 'see' then because it was pitch black.

In the annex 'atelier' - a 'nude' photo on the left and dozens of sketches on the right.

I 'pardon' my way through the artistic citizens, all with drink and most with cigarettes, into the gallery. With gaiety, abandon even, I get a press kit and do a tour of the ground floor and the upstairs.

The featured event is the beginning of a double exhibition with the title of 'Avoir 20 Ans à Montparnasse, Nus.' It shows the works of the painter, Gérard Fromanger, and the photographs done by Hélène Tilman.

The keyword is 'Nus' and I wonder if it is this that has produced such an enthusiastic crowd. The gallery itself is not crowded, which is a good thing because on the upper floor there is a black and red painting that reaches from floor to ceiling, and is about six metres wide - which requires it to be kind of glued to the wall and some pillars.

It is a painting of the 'old days' when orgies were more common than they seem to be now. Because of its size, I read it sort of like a comic strip; except it has no panels - it is all one.

After two years at the Grande Chaumière during the days and the Cours du Soir every evening at the city's art school on the boulevard, Fromanger's maître - Lesbounit - told him to, "Fous le camp au bout du monde;" because he knew enough to figure things out.

Formanger has been at it for a little over 40 years, here with hundreds of sketches done between 1958 and 1962; and paintings done from 1960 to 2000.

Hélène Tilman has only slightly less than 21 years on her clock; and Fromanger has invited her to co-exhibit. Her photographs are mounted side-by-side with texts; which are as interesting as the photos.

Hélène Tilman used Hélène Tilman as her model, without bothering with clothes, without bothering to be inside, without bothering for it to be daylight. Herephoto: buffet vernissage is Hélène crossing the Vavin intersection with the Rotonde as a background, wearing nothing but a slight smile.

Half of the buffet's table, hiding the famished at the other half.

I read the text that goes with this and it is worth the time. It is not until I later that read about her being the photographer's model too. Obviously there is great technique here - it is not easy to cross this intersection in daylight and wearing clothes, and take your own photo while doing it.

Doing it at night must be like doing alpine rope-work underwater. As far as I can tell most of her photos have been shot in Montparnasse, mostly at night; but there are daylight shots as well. 'The Nude Princess,' she is.

Between Fromanger's paintings and sketches and Hélène Tilman's photos, spread throughout the main gallery and the 'atelier' at the end of the alley, here is Montparnasse - as it was, but also is, today.

In the alley between the old ateliers there are a lot of Montparnassians. I assume this is what they - we - are. One atelier has been stripped so that it can house the buffet and it is run by uniformed waiters.

This is not your wine-and cheese snacks sort of thing; this is Montparnasse revisited. Next thing you know, maybe, Le Dôme will be remodelled back into being a bistro and La Coupole will be having weekly costume balls.

At the end of the alley by the satellite gallery-atelier, there is a bit of a courtyard, with a tree. A band is forming here, sitting on a bench and folding chairs. It's not a 'band' really; it's some good fellows who are joining us from a trip they've had to the '50's.

Violin, clarinet, two guitars and two guys with a jumbo bongo with rattle-things on it. They launch on an inaudible 'three' and there it is, the authentic pre-vinyl 78 rpm sound of Saint-Germain.

Montparnassian art and life fans take their stances, give their air-kisses, drop cigarette ash all over; the waiters cruise about picking up empty glasses - not plastics! -photo: jazz musicians and I lose the last gulp of a big orange juice.

I scan the head-line for Lucile's which should be sticking up somewhere, but if she's here she must be in low heels tonight.

Montparnasse 2000 is an occasional re-run of Montparnasse 1922.

Moving opposite the gallery entry I keep scanning this crowd. I guess it is Montparnasse high-life in its end-of-winter glory; costumes, art, crafts, glitter; underfed, overfed, odd-shaped art-types - and no double-scarfs.

A young guy next to me asks to take a photo and pokes his camera at me. Why - if it isn't our ex-Culture czar and recently ex-candidate for mayor of Paris - the present Minister for Education and re-upper for mayor of Blois, Jack Lang!

As he cruises into range with his escort of well-dressed bodyguards, the young guy is beside him - asking? - reminding? - whichever; Jack and the youngphoto: poster for expo guy do a good-buddies pose. I ask for a go-ahead and Jack gives it and I give them a good aim and pop the thing for the guy.

It's over in 30 seconds. I learn that Jean-Baptiste is a Haitian tennis-coach of a cook who does freelance social work, all made possible by the multiple-job features of the 35-hour work week, introduced to France by Jack's boss.

Except, Jean-Baptiste is Haitian like I'm Swedish - he was born in France. The photo is just a souvenir. I give him a bit of the history of Marie Vassilieff's ex-canteen for starving artists and 'Dômiste' roughnecks.

Then we stumble down the cobblestones and out into the Montparnasse night, to take two métros from the boulevard to two different southern destinations.

In southern Montparnasse, hard by Hell's Gate, I take on a load of double-express café at the Rendez-Vous - to get in shape for a long session of words and photos - missing the photo I don't have of the nude Princess sauntering across the Vavin, wearing a slight smile in the night.

'Avoir 20 Ans à Montparnasse, Nus'
Exhibition until Monday, 12. June. Open Wednesday to Sunday; from 13:00 to 19:00. Entry: 25 francs.
Le Chemin du Montparnasse
21. Avenue du Maine, Paris 15. Métro: Montparnasse or Falguière. Info. Tel.: 01 42 22 91 96.

The Chemin du Montparnasse also has a program of monthly 'evenings,' featuring music, poetry and other cultural good stuff for its members. Membership in the non-profit association costs 500 francs annually.

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