PAINTER OF THE MONTMARTRE
|I was angry, naturally, when Maurice was brutally beaten by thugs hired by business men who were tired of having their establishments vandalized time after time. But I can honestly say that I have no permanent grudge against them because they were only trying to survive--and had resorted to the rough stuff only after repeated calls to the police for assistance. Maurice, in an intoxicated frenzy, was an unnerving sight, and in this condition, was capable of the grossest acts--injury to innocent patrons, serious damage to valuable property, and in some instances, genital display, which if it happened too often, gave a cafe a bad reputation. When Maurice was infuriated, he could charge up any situation, doing whatever came into his head without compromise until he was subdued by superior force. It was all or nothing, there was no sympathy on his part for his victims, the violence was part of his lifestyle, he saw himself as having the advantage, because he had no responsibilities, just another night in jail, a few bruises, a headache, but the the owner had to be intimidated by the prospect of losing customers, or having the obligation of expensive damage repairs if a situation got out of hand.|
|When Maurice was with Modigliani, who joined forces when he couldn't find a drinking buddy, it was two time bombs instead of one. A bartender seeing the lurching figures of the artists coming in the doorway, knew the game was up, that it would be discreet to call the police to be on the safe side. But this didn't always work out because neither Maurice nor Modligiani were scared of the law. Whatever they had in mind, usually a brawl over drinks, a quarrel deliberately precipitated, or just a plain urge to bust up the place, generally came to pass. Both of them, even if they were intoxicated and really far gone, had an uncanny sense of timing, the ability to calculate each move they made with a considerable degree of precision. So, in most instances, when the blow-out took place, they achieved whatever they wanted, and the riot would go on at full blast.
The appearance of the caped police officers, nightsticks at the ready, never slowed down the feverish pace of things; bottles continued to fly; and the melee went on unabated inside and outside the counter where the drinks were served, tables were overturned, and customers who had no stomach for this sort of thing, flew out the door as fast as their feet could carry them. Maurice and Modigliani, furiously embattled, would go on until they were stretched out on the floor with two officers in blue astride their bodies, clubs held threateningly, indicating that further resistance meant a trip to the Charitee Hospital. Capitulation, during these confrontations, never entered the mind of either of the instigators; they were biding their time for the scene to go in their favor; and when the chance to hit back presented itself, they would lurch off the floor and start the madness all over again. If this occured, there was no mercy by the officers, in seconds, both would be out cold, lying in their backs, blood flowing everywhere. A bartender who had witnesses one of these senseless encounters, said that both Maurice and Modigliani took terrible beatings, but even so, as they lay there, they appeared to have faint smiles on their faces despite the violent climax of the evening. "They were like corpses you see at a funeral," he said. "removed from earthly considerations ..."
When the paddy-wagon arrived, Maurice and Modiglini would be carried to it, placed on the elongated, slatted benches, where a police doctor patched up their cuts and bruises. For a brawl of reasonable magnitude, the punishment was usually one or two days in jail, not particularly inconvenient, allowing them to sleep a bit, and for a change, to have regular meals. Sometimes, when the damages were no laughing matter, especially if legal problems were involved, they'd be in the clinker for a much more extended period of time. This became dangerous; the need for alcohol accelerated; and another explosion was in the making. In most instances, however, although I never could understand it, they got away with a pat on the hand, and were out boozing it up before the bandages had been removed from their cuts and bruises.
In one of these donnybrooks, when the policemen thought Maurice had resigned himself to the power of the law, when he was lying face down on some broken glass, one of them, a sergeant, decided it was a good idea to place his heavy shoe on Maurice's neck. Maurice reacted to this insult by biting the cop's leg, not releasing the bite until five other officers pulled him away, removing three of his front teeth in the process. The sergeant, furious, in agony, beat Maurice brutally about the face with his fists, while his fellow officers urged him on. One of the patrons, sympathetic to Maurice because he believed the police were using excessive force, picked up my son's teeth from the cafe floor, and after placing them securely in an empty cigarette package, stuck them in his pocket as he lay unconscious, arms outstretched, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Scenes like this, repeated endlessly, made the cops cynical about the idea of chasing crazy boozers up and down the La Butte Pinson. In their mind, preserving law and order was one thing, and trying to discipline characters like Modigliani and Maurice, another matter. This, they insisted, was a thankless task which circled about endlessly without ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion. The job, as far as they were concerned, should be in the laps of doctors, mental experts, something like the new breed of psychiatrists appearing on the scene. If this didn't work, they believed, then the strong arm stuff should be applied: permanent incarceration in mental prisons without ever letting them out on the street again if they failed to correct their problems.
As Maurice became older, he tried to avoid the rough stuff, opting for diplomacy, other means, to gain his ends. Once in a while, however, he demonstrated that he was still capable of living up to the Utrillo legend--staging riots, picking fights, committing vandalism. Eventually, as his body weakened, he became much more of a loner, alienated socially by his actions, a freak shunned by the average person.... A special few, able to assume the burden of being watchdogs, did most of the cleaning up after one of his performances. Among this group were Utter and myself, Gannet, and sometimes, Naly or Max Jacobs, if they had the time available. There wasn't anything particularly noble about what we did; we all had our reasons; and the important thing, I believe, was doing it. We were able to keep Maurice viable: he functioned at half speed, full speed, it did not matter, but the wheel turned, and that was the critical point. As far as Utter was concerned, even though he pitched in to help Maurice, he was not enthusiastic about it. He looked with disgust on my sacrifices, my anxieties, and was annoyed at stinking up his time by trying to save a worthless bum. We argued furiously about this on a daily basis, he threatened to leave, and to be honest, I wouldn't have blamed him if he had done so. I realized Maurice meant nothing to Utter: most likely, less than nothing; when you got right down to it. To ask anybody to suffer the burdens of dealing with a deranged alcoholic day after day, was too much.... Sometimes the exasperation over the trouble Maurice caused, made Utter violent, his face red with anger, his fists clenched, as he chased a retreating inebriate around the flat at the Rue Cortot. When he finally cornered him in the bathroom, he cursed, kicked and slapped Maurice, but carefully avoided inflicting serious injury. "There's plenty more coming," he'd shout, spitting toward Maurice to show his contempt, "I'll kick your ass off if you don't straighten out!" The funny part of these encounters, was that Maurice never-lifted a finger to defend himself, closing his eyes like a child getting a spanking, and stood, head down, face to the wall. He knew perfectly well that Utter was holding back, that he was capable of a much more ferocious attack, and he considered the punishment justified--well deserved.
The patrons at the Lapin Agile were not acquainted with my son because Aristide Bruant didn't permit shenanigans from the crowd of boozers who wandered around the La Butte Pinson. When Maurice happened to appear at the cafe: the Rue Vincent was the route used by the bunch on their way, usually, to the Montmartre Cemetery; Bruant was tolerant until Maurice did something which required immediate attention. When this developed, one of the entrepreneur's ex-prizefighters, hired for security, would grab Maurice by the arm and steer him out of the back door on the Rue Vincent, to complete his drinking in some other place. Curiously, my son never put on a pugilistic performance at the Cafe Lapin Agile, but went peacefully out on the street without protest. It may have been his heavily muscled escort, who wouldn't have minded an exchange, or perhaps, it was because I knew Bruant, and he didn't want to spoil things for me.
The ejection procedure was done quietly; none of the other customers even looked up; smoking and talking as they had been before. Besides, it was considered gauche at the cafe to pay attention to incidents of this nature, which were quite commonplace. The lifting of eyebrows was reserved for fancier establishments like the Guerbois or the Nouvelle Athens, where incidents of rowdyism could not be tolerated. Actually, for Maurice, it was no sacrifice, because the Cafe Lapin Agile had never been one of his favorite places: the atmosphere was too conversational, the music and singing disturbed him, and it made concentration on boozing difficult. If I was there when he arrived, I reminded him that Bruant was not thrilled by his presence, that it was better for him to leave. There were exceptions to this when he was far gone, if he had a couple of rough charactors with him, or if he decided to stay and fight it out, but mostly, he nodded his head in agreement, staggering out the door without protest ....
I went to the Cafe Lapin Agile when I was lonely, depressed about my painting, the chronic problems of Maurice, or because I wanted to spite Utter who left me alone most of the time. I sat at the table with Van Dongen, Royss, Picasso, Huguet, Severin, Picabia, Derain, Frieze, and Braque. Braque was not a regular like the others, coming in when he was in the Montmartre on business, or he was seeing private collectors who were beginning to manifest interest in cubism which had begun when he worked with Picasso at Ceret. Braque, at this time, was better off financially than his his artist-friends: he owned a cottage just north of Paris, had ample pocket money, and when he was with us at the Cafe Lapin Agile, he appeared in good spirits.
Many of the painters who frequented Aristide Bruant's place on a regular basis, were having a rough time of it, scraping along on a few francs, getting a good meal once in a while, and doing without when they were broke. They borrowed money when it was absolutely necessary, but it wasn't done with the idea of having a free ride, because they had pride, and weren't beggars groveling for a hand-out. What this impecunious group had, in general, was a wonderful esprit de corps which sustained them, and spread whatever money came their way among fellow artists, enabling everybody to survive. Essentially, they were deadly serious about painting objectives, ready to continue their sacrifices, and hadn't the slightest intention of caving in to adversity.
At this time, most of them lived at the Bateau-Lavoir, an ancient, delapidated structure, which received its name because it looked like a huge old-fashioned bathtub. The rent at the Bateau-Lavoir, next to nothing, made it possible for them to have a roof over their head, a place to paint, a meeting place, like the Cafe Lapin Agile, where they could exchange ideas. Making it for these artists was never easy; it was touch and go most of the time, with creditors banging on their door. Picasso lived a notch above the others; he had been befriended by a couple of American millionaires, Gertrude and Leo Stein, avant-garde collectors, keen observers of the art scene. They purchased Picasso's canvasses, spread information pertinent to his work, and invited him to dinner at the house they rented at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
For most of the others, the going was tough, forcing them to struggle through each day, to wonder if they were ever going to have a full stomach. Another factor which restricted the exposure of their painting was the reluctance of galleries to show experimental art which might turn the public away. The critics, in the main, at this time, were apathetic to ideas that went too far; and they believed that a consolidation was necessary on what already had been done. The main platform for the Bateau-Lavoir group was the small, low-risk galleries, independent shows, although the latter was frowned on, in a general sense, by the establishment mentality.
I was in the same predicament as the rest of them, struggling to keep my head above water, getting a few nibbles here and there; but primarily, suffering the slings and arrows .... I attended the group's get togthers at the Cafe Lapin Agile, long sessions debating tactics, although very little materialized out of these discussions. It became painful, with a life obligated to a drunken son, to listen to these men talk about art. My love for what I had chosen in life hadn't lessened, but my head was cluttered with personal problems, making it impossible to concentrate; I was out of touch with a dialogue which extended beyond my capacity to understand it. I found my mind wandering back to other times, to other artists I had known, to Lautrec, to Degas, to Renoir, to Puvis de Chavannes. In a way it was an escape from the plethora of ideas emerging now, confusing me, causing me to doubt my ability to deal with them, and terribly demoralizing. One wanted to escape the terrible pressures, to enjoy the carefree days of the Chat Noir and the Mirliton, of work, of pleasure, a combination of both which made living an exquisite experience. That was all gone now, I reflected, with middle-age replacing the vigor and optimism of youth, and pessimism, unfortunately, had gained ascendancy over soaring visions of the nature and purpose of life ....
As the tempo of Maurice's alcoholism increased, my time at the easel diminished, my early dreams of success as painter faded, preempted by other responsibilities I was unable to ignore, and I drifted away from the dedication so necessary for success in the profession. My son was, without a doubt, the main irritant, but Utter was a major aggravation too, still the aging, penniless bon vivant, still chasing feminine company and free drinks on the La Butte Pinson. It was incredible, at this stage of the game he was playing, that he could get away with it, when you consider what he had going for him. There is no envy in this observation; I am not feeling sorry for myself; because I havn't the slightest desire to make it with the younger bunch. I always knew Utter was a phony, a dreamer who made a pretense of life, a shallow individual without principle. What intrigued me was how he got away with such baloney among the hard-nosed cafe crowd. No doubt he had the ability to fool people; he had done it with me a thousand times; and, I expect, he'll do it in the future....