In his new book, Montmartre: A Cultural History, Nicholas Hewitt delves into the history of the neighbourhood to discover how the bohemian cultural hub pioneered the new the avant-garde in painting, theatre and literature.
‘What is Montmartre? Nothing. What must it be? Everything’, proclaimed Rodolphe Salis in 1881, when his cabaret Le Chat Noir launched an entertainment boom in the 9th and 18th Arrondissements of Paris which would dominate the worlds of popular and high culture until the First World War. Montmartre’s music-halls, circuses, cinemas, accompanied by extra frisson of crime and prostitution, coexisted with burgeoning art movements sprung from the cabarets, which spearheaded the avant-garde in painting, theatre and literature.
One thing that is relatively unknown about Montmartre is the curiously cyclical relationship it had with American popular culture, from the development of the music hall to cinema and the various manifestations of jazz. In some areas, the same cultural phenomena, progressively modified, ping-ponged back and forth across the Atlantic, with the more risqué elements of Montmartre music-hall, for example, influencing the development of burlesque, before being re-imported as ‘American strip-tease’.
One of the most famous examples of this is the cancan. The Montmartre dance halls of the late Nineteenth Century, like the Moulin de la Galette, catered for mainly working-class customers enjoying a range of dances, of which the quadrille was one of the most popular, described as a ‘sort of disorganised amateur chorus line’. One feature of the quadrille, however, was the chahut, a high-kicking sequence in which the female dancers’ skirts were lifted high, and which was the origin of more daring, spectator-based forms such as the quadrille naturaliste or quadrille érotique, the origin of what came to be known as the cancan. The word itself goes back to the 1840s, with the arrival of the dancer Céleste Mogador, formerly the star of the Bal Mabille, at the Elysée Montmartre, who introduced modern ballroom dances like the polka and the cancan. In the United States, music halls took up the model of the quadrille naturaliste as a chorus-line routine, whilst giving it the name of ‘French cancan’. After the First World War, the format was re-imported into France by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini for his review French Cancan, which opened at the Moulin-Rouge in 1928 before transferring to Le Tabarin. This time, the dance-routine, now far removed from its nineteenth-century popular roots, was accompanied by the now-traditional ‘Galop Infernal’ by Offenbach. Sadly, Jean Renoir’s version in his 1954 film French Can-Can, by which Jean Gabin, playing the impresario of the Moulin-Rouge, Danglard, re-launches his music hall with the re-branding of the dance, is historically inaccurate.
A more bizarre case of cultural transfer is that of the Hollywood canine star Rin-Tin-Tin, which derives from Montmartre popular cultural history of the First World War. In 1913 the Montmartre caricaturist Francisque Poulbot created two street-urchins, called Nénette and Rintintin, who appeared in the humorous journals of the period and were also marketed as porcelain knick-knacks. On the outbreak of War, they became regular features of magazines like La Baïonette and popular talismans, often in the form of knitted dolls, against the German air-raids on Paris, much prized by the population sheltering in the deep métro stations of the Nord-Sud line under Montmartre. Towards the end of 1918, an American soldier stationed in Lorraine found a litter of German Shepherd puppies, of which he kept two, and named them Nénette and Rintintin. On his return to California, he trained the male dog Rintintin to perform tricks and introduced him to Hollywood, thus creating the film legend of Rin-Tin-Tin, which was subsequently re-exported with considerable success to France.
Montmartre was truly part of a constantly evolving reciprocal international cultural history, in which names and the phenomena they designate move back and forward between France and the Anglo-Saxon world.