Art: See it in the flesh

Louise Jury takes a walk through the quarters where so many famous artists flourished

Montmartre and Montparnasse - these two Parisian districts are rich with images of wild, turn-of-the-century Bohemianism. Drink-fuelled brawls, long nights spent in philosophical angst, idealistic painters starving in garrets: it is the kind of material that has long sustained our romantic imagination.

Montmartre and Montparnasse - these two Parisian districts are rich with images of wild, turn-of-the-century Bohemianism. Drink-fuelled brawls, long nights spent in philosophical angst, idealistic painters starving in garrets: it is the kind of material that has long sustained our romantic imagination.

Since those heady days a hundred years ago, the City of Light has slipped off the cultural main stage, giving it up to New York and even - quelle horreur! - London. But these old quartiers still fulfil our romantic ideal of Paris as the city where artists shocked the world with their irreverence and passion and changed the face of art for ever.

I recently went to Paris's two art villages to find out whether they could still conjure up this atmosphere, and with me was Tate Modern curator Susan May. "Paris at the beginning of the 20th century was a cultural flashpoint and the birthplace of Modernism," Susan told me - the reason why Paris was chosen as the first of nine cities in the Tate's Century City exhibition, which looks at the great centres of art in the 20th century.

We climbed up to the village of Montmartre, which milks its past quite flagrantly and has become a bit of an artistic theme park. Here, particularly in Place du Tertre - once the main square of the "village" - sit so many modern "artists" that only two are allowed per square metre. Even on a cold day in January they were painting the mawkish urchins and caricature portraits which Japanese tourists buy for a few francs.

It could be called a tourist trap. But who could begrudge a little contemporary brushwork - colouring in some of the district's history for visitors? For it was here, in the early part of the last century, that some of the greatest names in art - including most of the Impressionists - lived and worked beneath the shadow of the Sacré Coeur basilica.

In the nearby Musée de Montmartre, one can sense how the area used to be. It was a rough place (indeed, it still has a certain farouche quality at night) populated by gangs called apaches. The composer Eric Satie used to pack a hammer when he went to work in a Montmartre cabaret.

To get the atmosphere today, you must leave the tourist zone behind and aim for the Place des Abbesses. Then head down rue Yvonne-Le-Tac, into rue des Trois-Frÿres and up into Place Emile-Goudeau. Here one can pause and ruminate upon the Bâteau Lavoir, a warehouse that was at number 13. Artists with studios here included Braque, Gris, Van Dongen and Picasso, who is said to have painted the seminal Les Demoiselles d'Avignon here.

Just down the hill from Montmartre is the fleshpot area of Pigalle - now, as then, a centre for the sex industry and therefore a favourite haunt of artists interested in low-life - especially Toulouse Lautrec and his cohorts. It is now recovering from seedy purgatory with fashionable nightclubs and a museum of erotica.

The artists were quickly priced out of Montmartre. Picasso moved in 1910 across the river to Montparnasse, then outside the city borders. Brancusi, Modigliani and Chagall joined him just before the First World War. Between the wars, Montparnasse took over as Paris's most bustling and flamboyant artistic quarter. In rue Campagne Premiÿre, several of the houses were once artists' studios, including one where the photographer Man Ray once lived. A French companion told us how, at the corner of the street every Monday, Italian families would gather to offer their services as models to the local painters. One Italian girl, Rosalie, became a favourite model of Modigliani, and fell hopelessly in love with him.

Here, said May, was where Léger and Brancusi lived in rue du Montparnasse, while Matisse lived and Giacometti worked in a studio on the neighbouring boulevard du Montparnasse. Visitors can still sip coffee or dine in the cafés where they used to meet - Le Dome, Le Select and La Coupole.

At Le Dome, the Americans who arrived in the wake of the Impressionists populated the back rooms, while Germans and artists from the Balkans took the tables overlooking the street. One of the café's waiters, René Lafon, decided to set up his own rival establishment across the street. He called it La Coupole and followed the advice of a painter friend, Alexandre Auffray, who told him: "Having La Coupole decorated by local artists will achieve its everlasting success." Every column in the brasserie was painted by a local artist, and now, after extensive refurbishment, the historian Emmanuelle Corcelle-Prévost, has identified all of them, bar one.

Americans moved into Montparnasse in search of pro forma bohemia. But, of course, the buzz was gone. Paris lost its cultural cachet. Yet, Montmartre and Montparnasse still have a purchase on the romantic soul and still represent the Paris of ateliers, absinthe and artistic progress. Take a walk through them, and smell the past.

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