You May Have More than
Mere Junk in Your Attic

Utrillo's house is now a museum
Utrillo's house has been converted into the Montmartre Museum

If It's Signed Utrillo, Dust It Off and Hang It Up

by Ric Erickson

Metropole Paris:- Monday, 10. March 1997:- Other than having a good time last Friday in the sunshine, up on the slopes of Montmartre, I went there to 'look' for Maurice Utrillo. Again.

I do not remember the exact motivation for the first visit, which was described in a feature entitled "Born Poor on Montmartre" that appeared in Metropole last September.

Since than, two of Metropole's readers have written to say they have paintings that may have been done by Utrillo. The second one came at the end of February from 'Wee Willy,' who said he had a friend who acquired one about 30 years ago, and could I help to identify it?

I am not an art historian, but since I am a bit of a snoop - and there might be a story in it! - I suggested to 'Wee Willy' that he send me details about the painting, and photos if possible. And what do you know: about a week ago two images popped into my attachments folder and I got them decoded okay from an unfamiliar format. They looked like they had been taken from a reflection in a Christmas tree decoration.

'Wee Willy' also furnished details about the painting's dimensions and what was written on it. He said there is something that looks like the copyright sign, followed by the date of 1957 or 1857. Entrance to the Museum Since Utrillo was born on Montmartre in 1883, I think we can rule out the second date. I am not sure, but I think Utrillo died in 1955, so he certainly didn't paint anything that year. Getting dubious here.

All the same I visited the museum that used to be his residence - the Musée de Montmartre, in the rue Cortot - with a very rough black and white print copy of the photos. The lady who could help me was at lunch, so I toured the museum itself, which I did not do in September.

The current exhibition, which continues until Easter Sunday, 30. March, is called "Dans un Jardin Extraordinaire... Valadon, Utrillo et Leurs Compagnons."

The museum's entry is in the rue Cortot in a little boutique and after you pay you go out into the garden and at the back of it, there is the original house. It is old and its stairs are narrow and the rooms are not large, but it has big windows - that were letting in a lot of light on Friday as there was lots to spare.

In the cellar, a video-biography was being shown in one darkened room and its anteroom had a display of ceramics made from clay from Montmartre, made in a ceramics factory on Montmartre.

Upstairs there were many - it is not a big house - paintings by the friends of Utrillo and quite a few by Suzanne Valadon, his mother. There were only a few paintings done by Utrillo himself, because he is quite famous and much more important museums have them.

If you are used to the places-designed-as-museums, then seeing paintings in a setting 'designed-as-a-house' is quite different. Natural light is a bit uncontrolled and when there is a lot of it in patches - because of the windows - then there is glare, oil-paint reflections, and you often can't stand directly in front of a painting; you have to find an 'angle.' This makes you, the viewer, part of the exhibition in the same way the walls are - you become part of the whole environment.

Some paintings are nearly impossible to see clearly, and others are placed - accidently? - in just the right location; so that they produce a startling visual effect. There were two or three that stood out this way.

Many of Suzanne Valadon's paintings, but especially the drawings were good too, and they made me think of artist's models and scruffy studios and paper and pencils, and smells of oil paint and oil and thinner, and half-full glasses of wine View from the villa's garden and half-uneaten sandwiches, which not being made of 'wonder-bread', do not give off a smell like old elementary school lunchrooms.

The thing I saw that really set my imagination flying, was the view from the house. The west-north-west end overlooks the Montmartre vineyard, the Lapin Agile cabaret, and the cemetery where Utrillo is buried. This view may be blocked later in the year when nearby trees have their leaves - but, there it is: live and work here, drink there from grapes across the street, and lie forever behind a wall about 10 metres from the door of the cabaret. I looked at this from the garden of the house and from the second floor for a long time.

Teachers and minders were herding dozens of miniature citizens through the house, and they were like short conventioneers, each with some sort of name badge and doorways became one-way affairs when they were coming through. One minder whispered orders and commands and I thought this was odd because Utrillo is dead and at least 250 metres away.

When my tour was finished I found the lady who looks after the documentation and showed her the print of the photos. She declined to speculate about anything. She did track down the phone number of a dealer who is a known Utrillo expert for me; but since the address was not close by, I decided to leave the rest of the search for another day.

After leaving the museum, I couldn't help going down to the corner of rue des Saules and rue Saint Vincent. The vines were being tended and a lady was set up and painting the Lapin Agile cabaret.

There was a tour group right in front of the cabaret and it must have been a very interesting history that was being recounted, because I waited 15 minutes before I could get a clear shot of the old joint, and then I had to wait while casual passers-by cleared the scene and then I think I got a good, clear shot. But I can't be sure.

Musée de Montmartre
12. Rue Cortot, Paris 18. Tel.: 01 46 06 61 11. Open from 11:00 to 18:00 except Mondays Entry price: 25 francs. Métro: Abbesses or Lamark-Caulaincourt. There is also the 'Montmartrobus' or take the little train from Place Blanche or Place Pigalle.

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Regards, Ric
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