Utrillo and the Riots
(Maurice Utrillo, 1883 –1955)
Rich ghettoes are patrolled or gated, with electric coded pads, ironwork that can be seen through but not entered. Poor areas cannot afford gates; their barriers are invisible psychological ones. Keep out or we will stare at you, follow and probably mug you. Don’t pretend to be walking down these streets on the way to do anything. These streets belong to us.
The paintings of Maurice Utrillo are, for the most part, of empty Paris streets. There are few passers-by. No churchgoers for the Petite Communiante ( also known as Église de Torcy-en-Valois 1912), the Église des Blancs-Manteaux 1911, the Église de Clichy 1911, the Ėglise de Châtillon-sur-Seine and even the towering Église Saint Pierre et le Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre 1918 – these are all set in deserted streets, without parishoners.
The snow-bound Notre Dame de Clignancourt has one solitary wanderer outside the railings; the other few people are all going off into the distance. This is another constant in his paintings – the few people who do feature are usually going away from the spectator. This leaves the picture free to be entered by any viewer. I have read analyses of this aspect which thought that this symbolised his mother walking away from him; hardly likely, as he and his mother were still sharing a studio with André Utter in Rue Cortot until Utrillo’s marriage to Lucie Pauwels in 1935.
Maurice Utrillo was encouraged to paint by his artist-mother, Suzanne Valadon. He was a drunkard at the age of thirteen and was admitted to the Asylum of St Anne for alcoholism when he was under twenty years old. By his first year on Montmartre, in 1901, he did about 150 canvases. There are over two thousand paintings by him, almost all of Paris streets.
So there we have it- the artist sitting, painting in the city streets, annoyed by youngsters but otherwise left to his day’s painting.
These days the equivalent would be a photographer, snatching records of the protesters in a crowded city centre. The ghost of Utrillo lingers over any Parisian demonstration or riot; as the mayhem and destruction and casualties mount up, the walls and streets can still remind us of his paintings. But now they can be full of burning tyres and thrown fireworks, with crowds of disaffected youngsters facing off an increasingly militarised police.
The white-plastered walls, churches and deserted streets are from another era, like a dream.