La Ruche: Where Art Was King in the 5th

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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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