hidden europe 40

Inside the hive: art and life in the arrondissement de Vaugirard

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: La Ruche is the hub of an artists’ colony. The name means ‘the hive’ (© hidden europe).


We explore Russia and Georgia in exile in Paris' fifteenth arrondissement - and more besides in this unsung corner of the French capital, as we trace the history of the bohemian artists who helped shape the avant-garde movement.

Vaugirard is one of those place names that have slipped from Parisian consciousness. There is the ghost of Vaugirard on métro line 12, where the once-independent commune of Vaugirard is recalled in a station name.

The man sitting at a table outside a bistro on the rue de Cronstadt has his own take on Parisian geography. “When I was a lad, my father — like his father before him — worked in the slaughterhouses over there,” he said, pointing over the road towards the Parc Georges Brassens. “In the abattoirs de Vaugirard,” he added as if his family calling were the noblest of professions. “In those days, this was not any old arrondissement. It was the arrondissement de Vaugirard. We never called this area the fifteenth.”

Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement is quite something. From Montparnasse — a quarter of the capital reserved for arriving, departing, artistically lingering or just carousing — the fifteenth sprawls south towards the boulevard périphérique.

The bistro Au Bélier d’Argent serves an excellent planche de charcuteries, so we lingered and nibbled while Gaston, proud descendant of generations of slaughterers, told us exactly why the fifteenth district of Paris should unfailingly be referred to as the arrondissement de Vaugirard. Here, clearly, was a man bypassed by modernity and postcodes.

Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement is quite something. From Montparnasse — a quarter of the capital reserved for arriving, departing, artistically lingering or just carousing — the fifteenth sprawls south towards the boulevard périphérique. As the city spread in the mid and late nineteenth century, it gathered unto Paris little hamlets and villages that once stood is open countryside. Grenelle and Vaugirard succumbed to the city in 1860. Vineyards and orchards, which long outlived the monks who planted them, were cut to the ground. The gentle slopes of one valley, once home to Monsieur Perichot’s vines, were carved up by men and machines as they built a series of slaughterhouses. “My family worked in la halle aux chevaux of course,” said Gaston in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Of course,” we replied, discerning that their prowess in killing horses possibly placed Gaston’s forebears in a superior class to other abattoir workers. Somehow, what little remained of the planche de charcuteries lost its appeal and — bidding an adieu to Gaston and making a mental note to become vegetarians — we set off to explore the arrondissement de Vaugirard.

Echoes of Russia

The rue de Cronstadt is a good place to start. It takes its name from Russia’s military complex on the island of Kronstadt on the approaches to St Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland. When the road was laid out and named in 1897, it was very popular to choose Russian names for Parisian streets. It embodied the Franco- Russian Alliance. And this was not any Russian name, for the rue de Cronstadt recalled the port where the French fleet had been ceremonially received by the Russian authorities in 1891. So that particular choice of street name was part of a wider enthusiasm for all things Russian that found a more visible expression in the Pont Alexandre III, which is arguably the loveliest of the bridges across the River Seine in the middle of Paris. French President Félix Faure received Tsar Nicholas II in Paris in 1896, where the visiting Russian monarch laid the foundation stone for a bridge named after his late father.

By the time the tsar visited, lines of horses were already making their way up the rue de Cronstadt to the new slaughterhouses. The meat returned in crates loaded onto the back of carts next day. Cities need to be fed. And cities have other needs. The spider’s web of streets spread ever further; even the monasteries and convents of Vaugirard were ensnared by the city. The new quarter had its uses. Fever victims and hunchbacks, mutes and foreigners moved to the district. Some went of their own free will, but others — like horses on their way to the abattoir — were coerced by sticks, carrots or circumstance.

Did the Russians come because of the familiarity of the name rue de Cronstadt? Was it a touch of home in the City of Light? Almost certainly not. Those with means headed for the sixteenth or seventeenth arrondissements, well away from Vaugirard on the other side of the Seine. The most affluent could even afford a home in the stylish eighth arrondissement, where Rue Pierrele- Grand (named of course after Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great) became the most Russian of all streets in Paris. Residents of that short road could throw open their shutters in the morning and look up the street to the domes of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of more than a dozen churches in Paris that contest for the Orthodox soul.

But the poor have souls too and, amid the squalid homes and workshops of Vaugirard, there were places of worship that offered respite from the demands of everyday life. Even today, the fifteenth arrondissement has two synagogues and four Orthodox churches — sure evidence that this is still a part of Paris that attracts migrants. Of those four Orthodox churches, the most distinguished is that of the Georgians in exile. The church is on rue de la Rosière, and has been for many decades a focal point of Georgian life and culture in western Europe. It is unusual in being dedicated to one of the very few female evangelists in the early Church. To Georgians, St Nino or ts’minda nino holds a revered position as an isapóstolos (an ‘equal to the apostles’), and she is credited with the early Christianisation of Georgia. The Paris church is the hub of a missionary parish that grew rapidly in the years after the Soviet invasion of Georgia in 1921. It is a mark of the special status of this church that the current Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church has twice visited — proof indeed that the unsung backstreets of the fifteenth arrondissement are held in special regard in Tbilisi even if not always in Paris. The most recent visit of Ilia II to the Église Sainte Nino was in May 2012.

From this fragment of Georgia in exile, it is a short walk east to rue Lecourbe to find Russia tucked away in a courtyard. The Église Saint- Séraphin-de-Sarov had a mention in the last issue of hidden europe (in the article by Duncan JD Smith called ‘ A Litany of Liturgies’). It attests to another stream of migrants who have made their way to the fifteenth arrondissement. But, rather curiously, the two priests who minister to this community are not Russian at all. Both are interesting characters who add to the colour of local life. Nikola Cernokrak was born in Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) but to a family that was Orthodox rather than Catholic. Today he combines his pastoral duties at the Russian Orthodox Church with a position as Professor of New Testament and Ascetical Theology at the Orthodox Theological Institute on the rue de Crimée — the spirit of the east, you’ll notice, is enshrined in the names of Paris streets. Father Nikola is assisted in his endeavours at the Church of St Seraphin of Sarov by a man who has been variously an accomplished academic, essayist and journalist. French-born Christophe Levalois converted to orthodoxy in 1999. Eleven years later he was ordained as a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The poorer quarters of cities are often the ones that attract artists. And the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris has been above all the quarter of the French capital where migrant artists arriving in the first half of the last century settled. The neighbouring fourteenth was also welcoming to those of little means. Here, on the left bank of the Seine, prices were very much lower than in fashionable Montmartre, which from about 1905 was subject to much property speculation.

The Russian painter Mariya Vassiliéva (Мария Васильева) arrived in 1907 from St Petersburg and headed straight for Montparnasse, five years later setting up her atelier in the Avenue du Maine in the fifteenth arrondissement. Picasso had held out in Montmartre, but in 1912 he too moved south across the river.

During the First World War, Mariya Vassiliéva’s premises doubled as a soup kitchen for the poor, attracting a constellation of talented writers and artists — some of whom came mainly for the soup and others more for the conversation. For Russians fleeing the revolution who looked to make a new start in Paris, Mariya Vassiliéva’s canteen was inevitably the first place they visited. They picked their way through piles of horse manure to get there. Some never moved on. In so far as there was (and is) an up-market part of the fifteenth, this was it. Moving south through the arrondissement into Vaugirard proper and beyond, the land was gobbled up by industries that needed space. When André Citroën set up his car business in 1915, he looked to this part of Paris for premises. The state printing press moved to the area in 1921. Newspapers set up their print works here, although the most distinguished of them all, Le Monde, has long since moved east to a glass showcase on the Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui (in the thirteenth arrondissement).

La Ruche (the hive)

All routes through Vaugirard bring one back eventually to the Parc Georges Brassens, now an attractive green space on the site of the former slaughterhouses. Gaston is walking around the small lake in the middle of the park. “So you have explored the arrondissement de Vaugiraud?” he asked. We confirmed that we had indeed done just that, even making a small detour to view the remarkable Service des objets trouvés on rue de Morillons. Only in Paris can the mundane business of handling lost property be elevated to an art form.

“Good, good,” said Gaston. “Everything? Even La Ruche?” he probed.

“Yes, even La Ruche,” we confirmed. For it was La Ruche that had first brought us to this corner of Paris. If there is one spot that most perfectly captures the spirit of the arrondissement de Vaugirard it is La Ruche. The extraordinary building on the passage de Dantzig, a sort of round brick beehive, started life as a pavilion showcasing Bordeaux wines at the Paris Exposition Universelle (EXPO) in 1900. After the exhibition closed, the French sculptor Alfred Boucher purchased the pavilion and moved it to a plot of cheap land in the south-west edgelands of Paris. There he made space for impoverished artists who needed some security to reflect and to work. La Ruche was not always as peaceful as its founder intended. It became the most bohemian address in Paris, a place where artists drank and caroused until late into the night. Such excesses mightily irritated the more distinguished residents of La Ruche, among them the young Marc Chagall — who was so poor that he managed to make a single herring and few crusts last an entire week.

Most of those who lived and worked at La Ruche came from Russia and eastern Europe, and many were Jewish. Residents at La Ruche included the avant-garde Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko (Олександр Архипенко) and the Russian Jewish artist Nathan Altman (Натан Альтман) who experimented with Cubist styles. Like most of those at La Ruche, these were men at the start of their careers, struggling to get their first big break. Their lives were driven by their art. The European avant-garde movement was shaped on this unassuming back street in the arrondissement de Vaugirard. There was Michel Kikoine (Михаил Кикоин), the son of a Jewish banker from Gomel; over the way lived Emmanuel Mané- Katz, hardly out of his teens, but already capturing Hasidic faces of the east European shtetl life on canvas. In these last years of the tsarist empire, Paris was a place of feverish innovation in art and design. And La Ruche was the pivot of that movement. It was above all a noisy place, but the defence of the artists was that creativity has never been a quiet process — and that the hubbub of La Ruche was infinitely preferable to the terrible howls that, both by day and by night, emanated from the slaughterhouses across the road.

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