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Student Eloise Dutilleul sits for a portrait by street artist Gabor Gozon.

By the homes of Degas and Renoir, Paris street artists face a lonely struggle

In normal times Paris’s famous Place du Tertre – the “artists’ square” – is packed with tourists and visiting out-of-towners, even on a chilly January afternoon. In the time of coronavirus, however, the square, home to painters, portraitists, caricaturists and silhouette artists, is almost entirely deserted.

The cafes and brasseries are closed, their terrace chairs chained up, and only a handful of the more optimistic artists have braved the cold for a few hours before the 6pm curfew kicks in.

Bruno Zem, 70, a portrait artist, is one of the few. He has been working on the Place du Tertre for 50 years, and has never known a time like it.

“It’s a hard time for everyone, but it’s especially depressing here,” he says. “Usually, this place is better than a studio because you are in contact with people from all over the place and that’s the pleasure. But at the moment it’s a desert; there’s no tourists, and no ambience.”

For more than 140 years since the Belle Époque, the Place du Tertre has been a haven for painters: Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Picasso were among those who lived and worked in the now picturesque but previously poor district.

Today, the square is better known for its street artists who have become as much a landmark on the tourist trail as the Eiffel Tower and nearby Sacré-Coeur basilica.

But now they are struggling – and not just with a lack of tourists.

Last week they held a demonstration on the steps of Sacré-Coeur with a banner reading “Stop Terrace Invaders Now” aimed at restaurant owners who they claim are squeezing them out of their traditional home. Restaurant chairs have been left chained up in the middle of the small square, which the artists say restricts public access.

Jerome Feugueur, 45, who like Zem and half a dozen others, is braving the January cold, has had his spot in Place du Tertre for 10 years after a stint working for Disney in Florida.

“Despite the fact we pay more per square metre than the restaurants do, they control the space,” says Feugueur. “It is causing a lot of tension.

“I came to work here because it was the historical place of the commune and a mythical site for artists, especially the surrealists like Picasso. When I started, the place had a village-like charm, but all that has changed. With the restaurants it’s become much more commercial and less interesting.”

Student Eloise Dutilleul sits for a portrait by street artist Gabor Gozon.
Student Eloise Dutilleul sits for a portrait by street artist Gabor Gozon. Photograph: Kiran Ridley

The cobbled square, sitting on a hill overlooking Paris, was the historic heart of Montmartre village until 1860 when it was incorporated into the city, becoming part of the northern 18th arrondissement. It was here that the 1871 insurrection that led to the short-lived Paris Commune began.

Today, the 250 artists who work the Place du Tertre, many of them graduates of prestigious Beaux-Arts schools, apply each year for their 1 sq metre pitch, which is shared with a second artist on alternating days. To be accepted they are required to submit a portfolio to the local town hall demonstrating their artistic ability. And they must be prepared to be patient – the waiting time for a sought-after pitch is reported to be up to a decade.

Of the estimated 90 million tourists who visit Paris in a normal year, about a third climb the steep steps to Sacré-Coeur, often paying about €30-€40 for a portrait, caricature, cartoon or silhouette.

The artists are a mixed bunch of men and women, spanning a wide age range and about 30 nationalities. Though in competition for customers, they appear to rub along better with each other than with the owners of the restaurants flanking the square.

Each artist pays €600 a year for their pitch, from which Feugueur says they make a “modest living”, often requiring second or third jobs.

Today, with the coronavirus keeping the tourists away, the best hope of a commission is from out-of-town visitors, but even they are few and far between.

A lithograph by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, one of Place du Tertre’s celebrated artists.
A lithograph by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, one of Place du Tertre’s celebrated artists. Photograph: Alamy

“We’re normally doing two, three, four portraits a day, but these days we’re lucky if it’s one a week,” says Claudine Brivière, 54, who works alongside her husband Michel, 75, on adjoining pitches.

On what is a grey and gloomy January afternoon, Eloise Dutilleul, 19, a psychology student from Nice, who is visiting her brother Maxence, 21, appears like a ray of much-needed sunshine.

Gabor Gozon, 53, originally from Budapest, sharpens his charcoal pencil and sets about her portrait. Within 20 minutes Gozon, who came to Paris almost 30 years ago to work in fashion design, has finished. Eloise hands over €40 and is delighted. “It’s marvellous. I had a serious operation on my jaw last year and I was curious about how he would do my portrait, but I’m very happy,” she says.

A few yards away, the Brivières – in matching waterproof jackets, tartan slacks and tan shoes – have decided to pack up and go home.

“Sadly, Montmartre’s belle époque is finished. When times are hard art becomes a luxury people cannot afford – and times are hard,” Michel says with a shrug. “The restaurant owners want more of the square and are squeezing us like sardines.”

Claudine dismisses her husband’s pessimism. “It’s complicated at the moment, but even if there’s nobody about, coming here is less depressing than sitting at home,” she says.

Feugueur agrees. Tourists or not, he will keep setting up his easel on Place du Tertre. “There will still be artists here. We just have to carry on, adapt and hope for better days,” he says. “It’s hard that there are no tourists at the moment, but they’ll come back. And we have to be here when they do.”

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