On the crazy hill of Montmartre, there are a lot of places smelling of genius, cheap wine, art, literature, and madness (there’s a reason why I rebaptized it Mount-Mad!). My favorite has always been the cabaret of the Lapin Agile, a little house, unaltered since the times when Alice in Wonderland was being published for the first time (1865) and that, in some ways, was the “cutup grandmother” of Montmartre, the one that better personifies the sense of community of the Parisian bohème between two rough centuries.
It was André Gill who, in 1875, painted the rabbit that turned the already mentioned Killers’ Cabaret in the famous Lapin Agile (literally: “nimble rabbit”).
(To discover why this sweet little house had such a terrible name before turning into the cabaret Lapin Agile, read: “The Lapin Agile: The Killers’ Cabaret and the horrible Pantin massacre“)
André Gill was a true celebrity in his time: artist, caricaturist, painter, poet, and essayist… (as I already explained, it was the times’ fashion to have more jobs at once, but this wasn’t a guarantee not to starve, anyway!). There are two interesting versions of the story about the name of the craziest cabaret in Montmartre and both concern Gill.
Anecdote 1: after the new sign appeared, the people of the neighborhood started to talk about the cabaret saying: “See you later at the lapin à Gill” (at Gill’s rabbit), that rapidly became “Lapin Agile”.
Anecdote 2: someone, one day, wrote on the cabaret’s wall “Là peint Gill” (“There paints Gill”) because the artist was a frequent customer of the place and the sentence, in French, sounds almost perfectly like Lapin Agile. Gill, who had just received the commission for the sign, probably decided to work on the wordgame, choosing the rabbit as the subject and, at the same time, homaging the lapin en gibelotte (a kind of rabbit ragu), a house special.
Gill’s story is one of the saddest songs of the crazy hill of Montmartre, the story of a tireless artist who mocked the pompous government of Napoleon III through his caricatures, actually becoming the father of political satire.
Everybody knows what “political satire” is, today, but almost no one knows who invented it. He was the one who coined the expression, which then became common in French journalism, “madame Anastasie” when referring to censorship. He even portrayed her.
Tutti sanno oggi cosa sia la “satira politica”, ma quasi nessuno sa chi le diede i natali. Fu sempre Gill a coniare l’espressione, poi diventata di uso comune nel giornalismo francese, “madame Anastasie” per riferirsi alla censura. Le fece pure un ritratto.
All of a sudden, Gill shocked his fans, this time with neither irony nor art: he disappeared during a travel to Bruxelles, and he was found some days later on the road, filthy and confused, with no memory of what had happened to him.
“Gill has gone mad!”, was whispered through Paris, a city literally flabbergasted by the news of his institutionalization. One of his best friends (and rumor is lovers), refused to accept André’s madness and he brought him back to Paris. I’m talking about Jules Vallès, a famous writer, journalist, and politician of the extreme left who had first-hand knowledge of the “Asylums”: his father had him institutionalized when he was 19 because he had decided he wanted to be anarchic. If someone’s wondering: they didn’t remain in good terms.
As soon as Gill got back to Paris, he launched himself in the production of a new opera: “The Mad”, and a psychology degree isn’t required to understand why he got so much involved with it. The canvas was accepted at the 1882 Salon but was then moved, without informing Gill, and hidden from the public. A new crisis followed, confusion again, amnesia, and Gil was institutionalized in the Charenton care home, from where he won’t come out alive.
But was Gill truly mad? He remained dramatically sharp until the end, and he never stopped drawing or wanting to go back to his life. He hated being constantly drugged, and to think that his artist colleagues would have even sold their mothers to be! Most likely his real problem was the same as many of his colleagues: syphilis, an STD that attacks the nervous system and affects lucidity… madness took Gill, worthy son of Moun-Mad, and I’m happy to have done my part in keeping him over the edge of forgetfulness, from where he always risks to jump.
I have chosen the small house of the Lapin Agile as a perfectly representative place of the genius insanity that invaded the butte between the XIX and the XX century, and this because there’s no corner whispering a better higher number of “larger than life” characters, starting from its manager Frédéric Gérard (beginning of the XX century), better known as Père Frédé.
Père Frédé never denied a bowl of soup to the broke artists hanging out his establishment, and so he was incredibly poor himself. Having only one job wasn’t enough to survive, and so, at night Frédé managed and livened up the cabaret with his guitar and cello, while during the day he was a potter and a fish seller. Often the cabaret customers paid him with paintings that he kept in his cellar or sold for peanuts. Now, the same paintings are worth millions…
You could always see him with hunter clothes with his faithful donkey Lolo, an important character of the History of Art, if the books on the subject told the fun facts too, but don’t fret: this is the next story of ordinary madness.
(To discover how Lolo started his artistic career and what kind of adorable mad people hanged around Père Frédé’s cabaret read: “The Lapin Agile: how genius and wine make a painter out of a donkey“)