Proust, Molière, Piaf, Chopin and Picasso

Where can one find Proust, Moliere, Piaf, Picasso, and Chopin in Paris?

Well, the fastest is the Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery in the 20th arrondissement and whose occupants is a who’s who of important European figures: Balzac, Molière, Wilde, Proust, Chopin as well as Piaf, except for Chopin‘s heart, which we understand was smuggled by his sister back to Poland and is today inside the column in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw (though it almost got lost during the Nazi occupation of Poland).

And except that Picasso was not buried in Paris  – having made Paris his home since first visiting in 1990, and having created his many works of art in various locales across the city, Picasso died in Mougins in the south of France, close to Cannes, and was buried in a château in Vauvenargues, close to Aix-en-Provence, that was opened to the public for the first time in 2008.

While not buried at the Père Lachaise, Picasso was perhaps the most important 20th century artist who lived in Paris.  He first visited the city in 1900, and was one of 50 million visitors at the World Fair of that year, the largest international exposition to date and a spectacular send-off for the new century.   During the many years Picasso made Paris his home, he lived at a number of different locations across the city, from the rue de la Boétie in in the 8e to Montmartre to rue des Grands-Augustins in the 6e (where he painted Guernica, a reference to the German bombing of this Spanish city).  He also stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and only left (for southern France) towards the end of his long life.

Picasso‘s Paris intersected with that of many icons of 20th century culture, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the fellow painter Georges Braque (which whom he developed what is today known as cubism), the composer Igor Stravinsky (with whom he collaborated on Diaghilev‘s ballets), and Jean Cocteau (with whom Picasso collaborated on a theatre production, this time with Erik Satie composing the music), amongst others.  He wrote many illustrated postcards to many of these friends of his, in which he shared his inquisitive thoughts about the world, often accompanied by humorous and quirky drawings.

The fervent avant-garde activities went on in parallel to the revolutionary changes sweeping the world in the first and second decades of the 20th century: the Picasso-Cocteau-Stravinsky-Diaghilev collaboration was the ballet Parade which had its first performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in May 1917, right in the middle of changing times (the Americans had just entered the First World War, and Russia was on the cusp of the October Revolution).

Proust’s Paris, in considerable contrast, was almost exclusively centred on Paris’ 8th arrondissement which is also where he lived almost all his life.   Except for his first 2 and final 3 years, Proust lived all his life in the 8e, and much of In Search of Lost Time  takes place in the 8e too.  Although described by Proust as “one of the ugliest parts of Paris“, it was nonetheless an extremely central and  fashionable area, a leafy neighbourhood, the Paris of the “beaux quartiers“.

Imagine breathing the same air as Picasso and Proust?  In fact, these two did breathe the same Parisian air; despite these differences, Proust knew Picasso.  Indeed, Paris at the turn of the century was at the height of its artistic glory, the center of the universe for writers, painters and musicians, and Proust knew many of them personally.  His novel contains many contemporary references to the writings of Zola and Flaubert, the paintings of Degas and Monet, and the music of Wagner and DebussyOne of the last dinner parties that Proust was known to have attended was in the company of Picasso, along with Diaghilev, Cocteau, Stravinsky and Joyce.

It was also in Paris that Picasso and fellow painter Matisse met for the first time (with Picasso being the younger man by about 12 years).  Many have seen similarities between the art of these 2 different artists, and suggested that a kind of visual conversation went on between the two, with two such examples being Picasso‘s “Large nude in a red chair” (nowadays at the Musée Picasso) a reference to (and cubist interpretation of) Matisse‘s “Odalisque with a tambourine” (in the MoMA in New York) and, in reverse, Matisse‘s 1940 “The Dream” (private collection) paying homage to Picasso‘s 1930 “Woman with yellow hair” (at the Guggenheim in New York).

As for Piaf, she can certainly be found at the Père Lachaise, though her tomb is an unprepossessing one with a number of unfamiliar names and herself under the name of “Madame Lamboukas” (her last husband was Theo Lamboukas).   Born in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement of Paris where she also grew up,  she returns to the 20e too as she lies at the Lachaise.

Going back more than 2 centuries from the Paris of Picasso, Proust and Piaf, we find the great playwright Molière in a number of places in Paris too.  One of the greatest comic playwrights of all time, he had a very strong connection with the city, having been born a Parisian into a prosperous family.  He has performed at the Louvre (it could be rented for theatre performances in those days) and Versailles, mocked the Academie Francaise and the hypocrisy of the dominant classes (in Tartuffe), and was granted the use of the theatre in the Palais-Royal.  Perhaps most dramatically, in Le Malade Imaginaire (also known as “The Hypochondriac”), a man farcically suffers terribly from illnesses he does not have.  In real life, he was actually suffering from a real illness (tuberculosis), and while playing the part of the hypochondriac, he succumbed to a coughing fit and died later at home.

Finally, back to Chopin, the “romantic” pianist par excellence and who grew up in Warsaw but settled in France in later life.  It was indeed in Paris that Chopin died, after a long battle with lung disease.  His grave at the Père Lachaise is usually adorned with many bunches of flowers and has a statue surmounting it – the muse of music, Euterpe, weeps as she contemplates a broken lyre.