There is a cabaret in Paris called Au Lapin Agile where they still sing the old French music-hall songs, including Picasso’s favourite, Le Temps des Cerises.
The House of the Agile Rabbit, as its name might be translated, is a charmingly rickety, unpretentious establishment: an old worker’s cottage on a steeply sloping hill in Montmartre. It is a rare survivor from a vanished past, as too is its owner, the charming and mellifluous Yves Mathieu, who still sings to small but devoted audiences despite his advancing years (I have never dared to ask, but suspect that if he were British he might soon be expecting a letter from the Queen).
Mathieu’s own links with the past are disconcertingly direct. He inherited Au Lapin Agile from his stepfather, who himself purchased it way back in 1922, from Aristide Bruant, one of the stars immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec in his music-hall posters of the fin de siècle.
At the start of the 20th century it was a favourite haunt of the many painters and sculptors who had by then colonised Montmartre. Mathieu showed me a reproduction of Picasso’s bittersweet Au Lapin Agile of 1905 (the original is now at the Met in New York), in which the artist appears as a brooding harlequin turning away from his companion at the bar, his one-time lover Germaine Pichot. (The painting was commissioned by Frédé Gérard — who is seen playing guitar in the background, and is the man pictured playing the guitar at Au Lapin Agile in the image above.)
The picture’s mood is hardly surprising: Picasso’s friend Carles Casagemas had been driven to suicide by his own unrequited love for the selfsame Germaine. Picasso continued to visit Au Lapin Agile for many years, and eventually Mathieu would come to know him personally, along with others including Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck.
I asked Mathieu why so many artists should have been drawn to Paris during the early decades of the 20th century — not just French artists but also Spaniards, like Picasso, and Italians, like Modigliani, along with those of many other nationalities. Might it have had something to do with the celebrated Exposition Universelle of 1900, which did so much to put the city on the global map? Or was it that Paris, with its massively increased population, its febrile, seedy nightlife, its new Metro system, had simply come to be seen as the epicentre of bustling, hectic, modern life?
His response was an expressive Gallic shrug. ‘All of those things. Above all, it was as you might say in franglais, le melting pot. Everyone wanted to come here, especially artists. And for artists, Montmartre was especially good because Montmartre was cheap. You could live here cheaply, drink here cheaply. The patron of the bar, the patron of Au Lapin Agile even, might take a picture in exchange for drinks, or a meal.’ What about nowadays? He smiled. ‘Nowadays, the pictures are not good enough. Everyone has to pay.’
The conversation set me thinking about the way in which great periods of invention and innovation in the history of art have so often been associated with particular cities. The very first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, noted the phenomenon when he proudly — and correctly — pronounced his hometown of Florence to have been the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.
Vasari’s explanation for that was straightforward and convincing. Thanks to the wealth of the Florentine mercantile class, there were abundant commissions for new artworks in the city, which therefore attracted painters and sculptors as a honeypot attracts wasps. When many artists are gathered in one place, Vasari argued, the inevitable result is intense competition — and competition fosters excellence and originality, because only by doing something new and different from his rivals can an artist set himself apart from them.
Moving forward in time, it might be argued that the rules were the same, even though the city was now different: Rome, instead of Florence. The artists of the later Renaissance and the baroque were attracted by the papal court and its immense wealth; every new commission was a spur to competition; and the results — from the altarpieces of Caravaggio to the sculptures of Bernini — speak for themselves.
But when it comes to the modern age, by which I mean the mid-19th century and after, the reasons for one particular city’s primacy over others, in matters of art, seem rather more mysterious. So too the reasons for a city’s decline.
For example, why was it that Paris somehow lost its lustre during the 1950s and 1960s? And why was it that, at exactly the same time, New York took over as the great imperium of art? The shift itself can hardly be denied; in fact, it was so great, so clearly defined, that it has been written into the very vocabulary of art history.
From the 1870s to the 1940s, virtually every ‘ism’ I can think of emanated from Paris: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, to name just a few. From the 1950s to the 1970s the same is true, but this time of New York: Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, all had their origins in Manhattan. So a transfer of artistic energies certainly took place, but why?
Willem de Kooning (centre, with light hair) in conversation with author Noel Clad and his wife at the top of a stoop next door to the Tanager Gallery on 10th Street, New York. The gallery operated from 1952 to 1962. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Perhaps Paris was just drained by the war and the German occupation; and perhaps New York simply seemed like the centre of a new world order. But doubtless there were other reasons. War not only exhausted the Old World, it also brought huge numbers of émigrés to America in search of a fresh life away from oppression and misery in Germany, or Russia, or wherever else they had fled — and among their number were many of the artists who would make of Manhattan a new creative hive, a single city but one where people from many different cultures mixed.
In some respects, Vasari’s criteria for a vibrant and creative community have always applied. For a city to produce great and original art, it has to be a magnet for vast numbers of artists, who will then compete ferociously with one another and, in the process, with luck, create new and remarkable things. A city attracts those artists, in part, by persuading them that there is (or at least might be) a market for their work.
But it also has to be interesting, to feed the mind and the eye; and it has to be a place where anyone from anywhere might believe they have a chance to get on. Perhaps all that helps to explain why, from the late 1980s to the end of the 1990s and perhaps a little beyond, London seemed suddenly to have taken on the mantle of a global centre for contemporary art: cosmopolitan, multicultural, politically liberal, with a thriving gallery scene to boot.
London still ticks most of those boxes, as indeed does New York, probably the most anti-Trump town in Trump’s America. And both London and New York still seem vibrant, to me, in a way that Paris simply does not nowadays. Perhaps part of the explanation for that is the long, slow revenge of the bourgeoisie, who were for years the butt of the Parisian avant-garde but who now seem to rule France with stifling effectiveness — so much so that unless you happen to be white and middle class, it really is hard to make a decent career for yourself there.
But if Paris is at a low ebb, neither are London and New York the resurgent cities they once were for art and artists. And that, I think, is because there is one box that neither city ticks any more. As Yves Mathieu reminded me at Au Lapin Agile, a city has to be affordable as well as exciting if it is to be a true melting pot, especially for young artists. Manhattan is no longer affordable, and London has become a city where you have to be a millionaire to buy the kind of garret artists once shivered in.
Studio rents in even the most down-at-heel parts of east London have gone through the roof, and commercial rates have risen to the extent that adventurous new galleries — of the type that gave the likes of Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread a start — simply cannot afford to open. Artists and their dealers have found ways around the problem in both cities, but mostly by moving out.
Brooklyn is the closest thing now to Manhattan in the 1970s, while dormitory towns such as Bexhill-on-Sea and Margate are the new enclaves for artists who might once have settled in London itself. I suspect the same story is being repeated in cities I know less well, from Barcelona to Berlin. Perhaps the sad truth is that we will never again see the likes of Picasso’s Paris: the Montmartre of Au Lapin Agile truly is a vanished world.