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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Marie Vassilieff

Pieta, Marie Vassilieff
Woman Sitting, 1910, Marie Vassilieff
Last spring (2015) when my wife and I were in Paris, we stayed at the Concorde Montparnasse Hotel. Had I done my homework better, I would have realized we were within walking distance of the Musee du Montparnasse, situated less than a half-mile away. Of course, had I done my homework, I would have also found that the museum had been closed for over a year. Thus I would have wasted time and my all-to-limited energy walking to a deserted, alley, overgrown with weeds only to be disappointed. I should point out that if you were to go online, even today, in search of information regarding this attraction, most sites mentioning fail to mention its closing. The museum, owned by the City of Paris, opened in 1996 and closed in 2013 having had financial difficulties during most of its existence. As Paris museums go (and there are a zillion of them), it wasn't much of an attraction. It was off the "beaten path" (way off), had no permanent collection, run by a couple aging artists on a very taut shoestring. It relied mostly on visitors attending special exhibitions. For six euros, you could have wondered about a mere 4,600 square feet dedicated to the Montparnasse art community's halcyon days from about 1900 through the 1930s. The building itself, was once the home of the Academie Vassilieff and it's founder, the Russian artist, Marie Vassilieff.

Quaint, picturesque, pure left-bank Paris...
but by Paris standards, not much of a museum.
By Paris standards around 1905, when Marie Vassilieff first visited the city, she was not much of an artist. Born in 1884, Marie grew up in a prosperous pre-revolution family native to the far western Russian city of Smolensk (almost in Poland). Her family wanted her to become a doctor. She wanted to become an artist. She studied first at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg then, in 1910, moved permanently to Paris where she worked as a Russian newspaper correspondent while studying under Henri Matisse. She became a Cubist. Although there had been a few female Impressionists a generation before, Modern Art, Cubism, and all the other "isms" of the early 20th-century were solidly male bastions and even most of the men were struggling. As her Pieta (top) and her Woman Sitting (above, left) would indicate, she was painting under the influence of two men, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso (along with Georges Braque).

Besides painting, Marie Vassilieff also created sculptural dolls, often satirical in nature.
The Smoker (sometimes called The
Tipple), Marie Vassilieff.
Marie Vassilieff is not a part of art history because of her Cubist paintings. She was, at best, imitative and uninspired in that regard. However, unlike her male counterparts, Vassilieff never had to struggle to put food on her table as did her friend Modigliani, who painted her portrait (above-right). She had a "day job," a well-to-do family back in Russia, she made satirical dolls, and probably sold a painting or two from time to time. She also taught art at her academy, though there's no indication she was particularly overburdened with students. Marie Vassilieff is remembered, re-spected, and indeed, beloved for her atelier, which eventually developed into a canteen for struggling Montparnasse artists, where they could enjoy a plate of food, a glass of wine, and the good company of other artist for just a few cents. It wasn't quite what we Americans called a "soup kitchen" during the worst years of the Great Depression, but it wasn't all that far removed.

A sketch of a rather rowdy 1917 party at Vassilieff's canteen celebrating the return of Picasso's buddy, a wounded Georges Braque, from military service after WW I. Though Vassilieff is obviously no great draughtsman, several of the artist are identifiable.

In the Café, Marie Vassilieff
Free food (or virtually free) is always a great draw, especially for starving artists. Vassilieff's canteen drew such iconic modern artist as the aforementioned Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, and Matisse, but also Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Marc Chagall, and other lesser-known figures on the time. Vassilieff had been a nurse in the French Red Cross during the war. She saw how badly the financial situation had become for many of the artists of Paris who frequently had little or nothing to eat. In 1915, she opened the canteen that provided a full meal and a glass of wine for only a few centimes (cents). Vassilieff's painting, In the Café, (right) would appear to be a scene she knew well. During the war, she and her artist friends were able to avoid the curfew by registering the canteen as a private club. The story is told that in January 1917, Georges Braque came home from the war a wounded veteran. Marie Vassilieff and Max Jacob decided to organize a dinner for Braque and his wife. Among the guests was Alfredo Pina with his new companion, Beatrice Hastings, who had recently ended her two-year relationship with Amedeo Modigliani. Knowing Modigliani's penchant for causing a disturbance when he drank, and that he drank often, he was not invited. Word of the affair reached Modigliani. Uninvited, and very drunk, Modigliani showed up, looking for a fight. A scuffle ensued, a pistol appeared, and Marie Vassilieff, all five feet of her, pushed Modigliani downstairs while Pablo Picasso and another artist locked the door. Marie Vassilieff made what is now a very famous drawing (above) depicting the event. Modigliani is the male figure in the background.

The Musee du Montparnasse before the City of Paris closed it.


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