“In Montmartre” ends with the observation that “the bohemian world of the artists in Montmartre in the first decade of the [20th] century may be seen as a kind of living parade … containing all the seeds of the main, 20th-century show — and all the fun of the fair.”

It’s an apt metaphor for a group of artists who adored the circus, the cinema and the cabarets, who contrived sensational processions in costume or on floats to the annual Quatres Arts ball at the Moulin Rouge, and whose lives, like their art, were often a public spectacle, perhaps even a scandal.

As in her earlier (and quite wonderful) “Private Lives of the Impressionists,” Sue Roe has created a collective biography. Picasso and Matisse, the two giants, get top billing, but fellow artists Derain, Vlaminck, Modigliani and Braque weave their way in and out of the parade, as do Leo and Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sergei Diaghilev, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, fashion designer Paul Poiret and Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s lover and earliest muse.

The parade is full of life and color, largely because of Roe’s flair for description — she is particularly gifted at describing paintings, conjuring them up in bold, strong strokes — and her eye for the telling anecdote. When Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas took French lessons from Fernande (she and Picasso were then separated and Fernande needed income), Roe quotes Toklas (via Stein): “Of course to have a lesson in French one has to converse and Fernande had three subjects, hats, we had not much more to say about hats, perfume, we had something to say about perfumes.” But the third subject, categories of furs (first sable, second ermine and chinchilla, third fox, martin and squirrel) was, Toklas remarked, “the most surprising thing I had heard in Paris.” Through that one anecdote, Roe incisively characterizes all three women — a trick she repeats in every chapter of “In Montmartre.”

Roe brings an equal incisiveness to her discussions of art, explaining the overlap among painting, music, literature, couture and dance and the driving forces behind the explorations that artists in all these fields were engaged in. “The emphasis in both poetry and painting was now on making rather than mimesis. Modern poetry insisted on its own reality as a construction, artifact or art object instead of merely reflecting, illustrating or copying the ‘real’ world.” Later, she writes, “the new goal for the modern artist was to find ways of expressing the inner life” — a quest that absorbed Picasso and Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain, Gertrude Stein and Sergei Diaghilev, passionate artists involved in serious struggles.

Art, redefined by Picasso and Braque, was “visual spectacle, speed and urban chic, incorporating and celebrating everyday life.” But it was also deeply significant. Despite the differences that Roe vividly delineates, all the artists were united in their conviction that art matters desperately, that expressing the new century to itself was a matter of supreme importance — even if — especially if? — the expression was a comic parade.

 

Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.