La Ruche: Where Art Was King in the 15th

It was the last place on my list. I had visited the Bateau Lavoire where Picasso lived and worked. I stood at the graves of Modigliani and Gertrude Stein. I passed Hemingway’s homes and haunts and amassed over 200 addresses of the greats and wanabees who lived and worked in Paris during that great age of enlightenment up to the great depression. I gazed up at Picasso’s studio where he painted Guernica or where Moise Kissling entertained on Wednesdays. Nathalie Barney’s salon is well known to me and I’ve visited Zadkin’s studio and The Closerie Des Lilas where Hemingway escaped the noise of his apartment to create the works that will abide. I’ve walked in the footsteps of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and even Diego Rivera. I cannot go to France without standing at the door of 27 rue de Fleurus where everybody who was anybody came to Gertrude’s soirees every Saturday night. I often visit the homes of Harry and Caresse Crosby those rich and decadent oddballs who used Paris like a private playground. Their story is bigger than life, even tragic. Now, on a blistering June day, I walked east on Rue de la Convention and South on the rue Dantzig up hill to where a tiny street forks to the right and there I stood in front of La Ruche, the beehive, for the first time. It was like standing in history on hallowed ground. This was, for many artists, their first home in Paris. One artist arrived from Russia with only two words of French in his vocabulary. He stopped a passer-by. “La Ruche”, he inquired. Here one could live for very little surrounded by other young artists. I peered through the gate but felt disappointed when I saw the “private” sign. I should have known. Tour groups passed and peered through the gate. I was close but I was on the outside looking in. A lady opened the gate from the inside. I helped her guide her bicycle through the door. “Pardon me,” I said in my best French, “would it be possible for my wife and I to go inside?” The lady frowned. “Sorry”, she replied. “This is a private residence. Nobody is allowed in.” She started to move away. I produced my press pass. “Madame,” I pleaded. “I’m a writer. I just want to walk around the grounds. I won’t go inside and I won’t disturb anyone.” She considered my request. “Okay,” she said. “I guess it would be all right.” I thanked her and found myself in the garden. The main door had been the gate from the Pavillon des Femmes at the 1900 Universal Exhibition.  At each side of the entrance were caryatides from the British East Indies pavilion. I was standing at the door of the original Medoc wine pavilion and that set of pie-wedge studios that the sculptor Alfred Boucher had purchased. The sculptor Zadkine had referred to it as “an evil wheel of Brie.” It would be a place for 80-100 artists, inaugurated in 1902 with the help of the ministers of culture and education. I was standing in the garden where future giants walked. This had been the home of Ossip Zadkine, Marevna Vorobiev (the lover of Diego Rivera), Moise Kissling, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Constantin Brancusi and Jacob Epstein. I walked around the overgrown garden. Here I found a sculpture done by Boucher himself. Here artists still lived in the quiet of this half hidden building. It is still in demand and on view. Art history was made here in the twentieth century. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome. I took a few pictures and quietly returned to the street. As I turned to face the gate again, I saw a very old lady leading a small dog toward me. I stopped on the street and waited. “Can I help you?” she asked. She had to be over ninety. I explained my interest in the building. She was pleased. She told us she had lived there since the fifties. She knew everyone, trusted nobody, but loved La Ruche. Her “last” husband had been a painter. She knew many of the others. Even Trotsky slept at La Ruche, she said, but she liked Marc Chagall best. He had painted more than thirty paintings while he was there. “You are not an artist,” she once told him. He was taken aback. “No,” she said. “Anyone who can paint wings on a donkey is a poet.” Chagall smiled at her. He was very pleased. We talked for quite some time. All the while her dog hardly moved. Finally she led him back through the gate. The caryatids watched as she returned to her tiny studio apartment. La Ruche has survived the developer’s ball. It is alive with artists even today. It has been somewhat restored and might be there for another generation of interested visitors. If you love Paris and you love the arts, La Ruche at #2 Passage de Dantzig, in the 15th, is a must. — Arnie Greenberg is a retired Professor and freelance writer. He taught in Montreal area schools for 37 years, 25 at Vanier College. His specialty is modern France with a special emphasis on Paris in the 1920s. Since his retirement, Arnie has been actively involved in a new venture. He operates a small tour company which organizes and takes tour groups to Europe each spring. It all started with “Hemingway’s Paris” and now incorporates the whole of France and parts of Spain!
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