The Montparnassian myth was beginning to spread sufficiently throughout all Europe, and even to the United States, that Weissberg, having scarcely disembarked from the Gare de l’Est and set foot on the Parisian paving stone, went to the neighborhood where artists who had arrived from all horizons unfolded their secrets with infinite ramifications, between the Place de Rennes and the Observatoire, with a strategic crossroad: the Carrefour Vavin. In this provincial quarter in rapid transformation since the creation of the North-South underground line, connecting the Gare de Montparnasse, which required the opening of the Boulevard Raspail to the Rues Delambre and Montparnasse, Vavin and Joseph Bara, the legend of Montparnasse was already rich in stories and scandals about its habitués (regulars) that circulated beyond the barriers of the capital. Glory awaited some, destitution being the lot of the greater number living in horse stables that were so numerous at the back of courtyards, adjoining warehouses converted into artist’s studios. These seekers of the Absolute met one another in the cafés that brought the new arrivals together and gave comfort to the artists and poets, joined soon by rich bourgeois and models, collectors, critics and dealers. At the disappearance of Apollinaire, Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne, who had tragically just left the scene, toward which flocked young Russian, Polish, Galician artists, a chapter came to a close. However, life went on, and soon a certain Bohemia was to come to terms with reality and dream of remaking the world. From Gomel, Vitebsk, Odessa, Lodz, it was Central Europe that had arranged to meet in the world capital of the arts. They eluded solitude by gathering at La Rotonde, at Le Dôme and at La Coupole. Soutine, Kikoïne, Krémègne (none of the three would see Russia again), Chagall, Kisling, Zadkine, Mane-Katz, Pascin, Lubitch, Charchoune, Hayden, Chana Orloff, Kogan, Mendjizky, Pouni, the Delaunays, shared a frugal ordinary at Marie Vassilieff ’s dining hall. 14 Love and misery were on the menu, but all were starved for art. They shared an enthusiasm, which in spite of the difficulties, protected them from drama – but did not spare them all, such as Diego Rivera who had just died, victim of the cold in his studio in the rue du Départ. Foujita, an emblematic figure, multiplied mischief with his Muse Youki, while Kiki passed from one studio to another posing for the artists. Two establishments were unavoidable, the Dôme and the Rotonde, whose boss, Libion 15, inaugurated for clients in a pinch the principle of exchange, which was the explanation for numerous
14. 21 avenue du Maine – and later at the “Cercle François-Villon”, 43 bis boulevard de Vaugirard. LL. 15. Until Libion sold the Rotonde, in 1920. KMR.
paintings on the walls. Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Picasso, Van Dongen were regulars. “The atmosphere of La Rotonde until 1924 was the ambiance of a pension where people would go to meet up with their friends, and where it was warm in the winter,” wrote Jean-Paul Crespelle (in La Vie quotidienne à Montparnasse à la Grande Époque 1905-1930, Hachette). It was therefore in all logic that Léon Weissberg came to the Rotonde at 2 o’clock in the morning, carrying no baggage – a tin of American corned beef as only possession –, for his first date with Paris and living art. His first encounter with his compatriot Sigmund Menkes, who had arrived only shortly before him, was like the dubbing of a knight. Menkes took him to his hotel in Montparnasse where Weissberg spent his first night in Paris. For the artists, lodging remained a priority, and a problem experienced every day. Some of them elected domicile at La Ruche, strange western pagoda, “beehive” of artists’ studios made of materials recuperated from the Exposition Universelle of 1900. In these squalid pavilions, Chagall, Kikoïne, Krémègne, Indenbaum settled, while other artists preferred the Cité Falguière. Weissberg chose to stay in the rue Campagne-Première, at the numb