The Villa Vassilieff is a tiny piece of old Montparnasse, the Montparnasse of artist’s studios, low houses and small cobbled alleyways, before it was all torn down in the 1970’s to build the ultra-ugly Montparnasse Tower and the surrounding and equally ugly shopping centre and offices.
From 1910 onwards, penniless artists and writers came to live in Montparnasse from all over the world, deserting Montmartre and enjoying the creative and bohemian atmosphere, the cheap rents in artist’s communes such as La Ruche, and the bars and cafés that served as both intellectual meeting places and became essential lifelines to the artists living in poverty with no heating and no kitchens.
The Villa Vassilieff was one of these communes, once the studio and academy of artist Marie Vassilieff, who then transformed it during WW1 into a canteen, ‘La Cantine des Artistes’. She fed artists and writers, who at the time could scarcely afford to feed themsleves, a hearty meal and a glass of wine for a couple of centimes – Picasso, Modigliani, Soutine, Matisse, Zadkine, Chagall, Braque, Max Jacob, Léger and Apollinaire, among others. During the war cafés were obliged by law to close early, but as Marie’s canteen was registered as a private club, it did not have to apply this rule, and became the meeting place for the local artistic community, filled each night with music and dancing.
In 1929 Marie moved her studio, and the Villa was occupied by architects, other artists and then a museum. It was almost demolished in 1992, saved by photographer Robert Doisneau and actress Juliette Binoche. In February 2016 it reopened after renovations as a residence and exhobition space for artists. Sponsors provide grants allowing 4 international artists to live and work there each year, and workshops and seminars are held regularly along with changning exhibitions, aimed at connecting past and present Montparnasse.
Take a step back in time into the Montparnasse of ‘Les Années folles’. In the Villa Vassilieff the office blocks and traffic outside are forgotten and you get a rare glimpse into a Paris of the past where it’s quite possible the spirits of some of the greatest artistic and literary figures still live on, as new life and creativity is breathed into the studios once again.
- Villa Vassilieff, 21 avenue du Maine, 75014 Paris. metro: Montparnasse Bienvenue
Villa Vassilieff website (in English)