Musings of Montparnasse
The History of the Neighborhood
By all accounts, Montparnasse has served as a bastion of Parisian artistry since the 18th century. The neighborhood truly blossomed in the 1920s when intellectuals and artists began to congregate there, forming a cultural hotbed. There appeared to be a great sense of “spirit” in Montparnasse around this time. Artists like Picasso and Hemingway frequented the establishments, one of which allowed artists to provide drawings in exchange for hospitality. The great American visual artist Man Ray set up his photography studio at l’Hôtel des Ecoles, with a lineup of artistic behemoths including Picasso, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein posing for his camera.
Despite its illustrious history, modern-day Montparnasse seems to have lost much of its reputation as a creative mecca. But why? A quick walk around the neighborhood reveals an expanse of artistic expression. The Foundation Cartier holds frequent contemporary art exhibits featuring the works of young artists from around the world. The Rue de la Gaieté district alone holds six different theaters, each of which has a significant cultural importance to the city. The Théâtre de la Gaîté-Montparnasse, originally a café-concert venue in the 1870s, now exhibits local comedians and musicians. Even the Montparnasse cemetery holds the graves of many great France-based artists – Man Ray, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Eugène Carrière, to name a few. With historical significance everywhere you look, the district feels optimized for creative expression.
Circuiting the perimeter of the cemetery, you can find multiple contemporary art galleries showcasing local creations. Among them is the Montparnasse Gallery, which is run by the district’s own city council. The gallery walls contain the works of local street photographers; the art itself celebrates the neighborhood. The proximity of the galleries to the cemetery feels significant – the creative heavyweights who helped designate 20th-century Montparnasse as an enlightened district lie adjacent to the works of those to whom they have passed the torch.
A block’s walk from the cemetery finds the neighborhood’s roundabout, prominently featuring a model of the imposing Lion of Belfort. The original lion was built in 1880 as a symbol of French resistance during the 1870 siege of Belfort, in which the French garrison rebuffed advancing Prussian forces for 103 days until the Armistice of Versailles was signed. The lion serves not only as a reminder of the troop’s heroics, but also of the country’s autonomy. That same sense of autonomy is what defines Montparnasse’s history as a district – starving artists forging their paths through life. Man Ray and Hemingway may be gone, but their spirits live on in the unapologetic expressionism of Paris’s 14th arrondissement.