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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

La Ruche

As artists, it is only natural to sometimes sit and ponder art in general and painting in particular, to try to look upon what's happening today with a certain degree of perspective. With this new century well underway, we can only guess what frontiers we might now stand upon. Just over one hundred years ago, artists and thinkers must have had similar thoughts. Unlike today, when there is no geographic center in the art world, a century ago, the place to be was Paris. And why not, they were having a World's Fair. Even in Paris, the artistic center of gravity was changing. During the Impressionist era, the place to be was Montmartre, not too far from the center of the city. As the 20th century began, that had shifted toward the meadows of Montparnasse, on the proverbial left bank of the Seine, and near where the 1900 World's Fair was held.

LaRuche as seen today

During the fair, a revolutionary piece of architecture known as La Ruche (the beehive) was used as an exhibition hall for the wine industry. Afterwards, it was sold for a surprisingly modest sum to a sculptor named Alfred Boucher. He turned the round, three-story structure into a sort of artists' commune with twelve different studio apartments around a central stairway. The ceilings were high with sleeping lofts above the workspace which also doubled as living room and kitchen. The rents were very low and the renters congenial. The first to move in were Avant-garde painters Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Leger, both destined to make major names for themselves during the new century.

It was not just an abode for artists, however. Political refuges also called it home, among them, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Anatoli Lunacharsky. Also from Russia came Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Archipenko, Osip Zadkine, and Chaim Soutine. One of the last to take up residence was Moshe Zakharovich Shagal who arrived in 1910. He was Russian, like many of the others. He spoke no French, but communicated instead with his painting in a new, highly colorful and distinctive iconography that bridge the gap between the arty Paris of the first decade of this century and his Russian-Jewish 19th century heritage. He changed his name to the French sounding Marc Chagall, and made friends quickly. The contacts he made while living at La Ruche were to have a profound impact on his career as this peculiar structure became a "beehive" for the minds that would later direct one of the greatest, failed social experiments of this, or any other century.

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