During the two World Wars, Montparnasse was a vibrant, exciting neighborhood that was constantly challenging the ideas and traditions of the time. Many painters, photographers, and intellects lived in Montparnasse due to the prominent café culture in the neighborhood that helped facilitate the flow of ideas. Expatriates, surrealists, and photographers spent entire days in the cafés of the area, leading to a strong interconnected community of artists and thinkers. One of the most established cafés in the neighborhood was Café de la Rotonde. This particular café is so well-known because the famous customers and the new ideas on life that were created in la Rotonde.
Starting with the Salons in the Age of Enlightenment, the sharing of ideas in Paris has always been place based. Groups of philosophers, generally bourgeoisies, would meet in each other’s parlors to talk about ideas over coffee in the late eighteenth century. During the late nineteenth century however, the location for the discussion of theories shifted to cafés. This started café culture in Paris, which is the act of artists, intellects, and revolutionaries sitting for hours at a time discussing all aspects of life and philosophy. Café culture is not limited to any group and does not require one to be of a certain socioeconomic standing, which was evident during the interwar period in Montparnasse. Café culture sparked back up after World War I because many people sought out new ideologies and ways of looking at life after the trauma and confusion. This is when Montparnasse became the cultural and artistic hub of the world. The neighborhood is full of prominent cafés, leading to a rich café culture, which added to the allure of the area. Many artists and thinkers moved to Montparnasse to be surrounded by other artists and help contribute to the growing movements. These artists were able to spend entire days in a café discussing ideas.
Café de la Rotonde was one of the most famous cafés during the interwar period. The café was founded by Victor Libion in 1911, right before the war. It became a center for artists and intellects, partly because la Rotonde catered to their poverty. Libion allowed artists to stay in his café for hours with one cup of coffee, and if they could not afford the coffee, she would accept drawings on napkins as exchange. At times, La Rotonde’s walls were covered with napkin drawings from the likes of Picasso, Rivera and many other famous artists. The spot was a famous haunt for these artists and many others. The café was down the street from Pablo Picasso’s studio so he spent many days there, alongside of Diego Rivera, Federico Cantú, Ilya Ehrenburg and Tsuguharu Foujita. There is rarely a place where so many famous artists lived and worked so close to one another like they did in Montparnasse. All of the artists interacted and influenced one another through their shared experiences at the Café de la Rotonde. Many of these artists used the café itself as inspiration, having famous paintings of the scenes inside. This shows how important this place was in the artists lives. One of the most famous paintings of the café is Picasso’s In the Café de la Rotonde in 1901. Daniel Rosenfield describes the scene as “Two women at a café table facing the viewer, the woman to the left leaning towards the woman seated next to her, and a waiter, cut off by the top of the canvas, serving them from the right... The form of the waiter has been replaced by what appear to be the woman’s wrap and the gentleman’s overcoat, hanging on a hook above the vermilion bench.” (Rosenfield 185). The scene focuses on the costumers and the conversation rather than the service, demonstrating the importance of exchange that occurred in the café.
Besides artists, intellectual movements also took advantage of the café culture. In Montparnasse, surrealists were known for visiting the cafés in the area. Gustave Moreau, André Breton and Man Ray were frequent customers of La Rotonde. The surrealists met at cafés daily to discuss ideas and they heavily relied on this exchange to spread the ideologies and developments of Surrealism. Through these meetings, the group was able to gain new members and draw more people into their movement. The surrealists drew off of Dadaist ideologies and created new meanings for life and death. The foundation for both movements was the belief that after witnessing the horrors of World War I, the whole world had gone crazy and was beyond repair. Dadaist believed that any old values and systems had to be thrown out, that anything with order was corrupted and should not exist. Surrealists believed that many old societal structures should be re-examined, which would lead way to the development of completely new ideas. Surrealists believed the best way to access these new ways of thinking was through the subconscious. Only in the subconscious could one discover the unbiased realities of life, giving it a new meaning. They wanted to liberate the imagination from any societal restraints. It was the café culture that allowed the Surrealists to exchange and spread ideas that created a completely new way to examine life.
Today, the café continues with its legacy by maintaining 1930's decor and paintings by Amedeo Modigliani on all the walls. The red theme is carried through the restaurant to math the sign outside the building. There are also many references to the icons who used to visit the restaurant. The placemats on the tables have signatures from the likes of Picasso, Man Ray, Hemingway and many more. There are also dessert named after the Lost Generation, such as a sundae named Kiki, and another named after Picasso. The café takes great pride in its history, and tourists flock there to experience a piece of history.
Café de la Rotonde is an extremely important place to be able to understand the interwar period in Montparnasse. The café culture that is associated with France, was extremely prevalent during this period, allowing for an exchange of ideas and an interconnected community of artists. Many famous expatriates, surrealists and artists lived in the neighborhood, and café de la Rotonde was very popular among them. By looking at the café that was so important to these revolutionary thinkers, it becomes possible to grasp a deeper understanding of how their movements and beliefs grew. A large part of why the movements were so successful was because it was all situated in one neighborhood, very close to one another. This lead to a hub of cultural and intellectual thought. The ideas that were started in these places have shaped the modern world, and need to be revisited.