Paris Wanderlust: Necropolis Montparnasse

Necropolis Montparnasse

Montparnasse Cemetery from Tour Montparnasse

A necropolis is a city in its own right — houses along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, lawns, neighbourhoods. Property is bought, sold, and inherited. Water is piped in for ritual house-cleaning and for the gardens and birds — mostly ravens harassing the other birds.

Sometimes the necropolis presents a tableau vivant of the deceased, a portrait that freezes a moment in time. Below, a couple’s tomb is fashioned as a bed in which likenesses of M. and Mme. Pigeon, still under the blanket, recline in the manner of ancient Etruscan spouse sarcophagi. It’s a quiet, tender moment of domestic life. Perhaps they’re chatting about their children or solving the Sunday crossword puzzle.

Charles Pigeon (1838-1915) and family

Or perhaps discussing the family business of manufacturing hand-held lamps.

In a way, cemeteries are as much about life as they are about death.

Sex in the Cemetery

It should come as no surprise.

Cupid awakens Psyche with a tenderly erotic kiss:

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1757-1822)

The original of Canova’s sculpture of nascent Romanticism is in the Louvre.

Below, Brâncuşi’s limestone The Kiss: lovers in a fused column of sexual embrace.

The Kiss by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957); grave of Tatiana Rachewskaia (1887-1910)

Brâncuşi’s lovers are not embracing at the tomb of Brâncusi — which yields its own tale, a sort of posthumous ménage-a-trois — but at the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaia, a young Russian woman who committed suicide in Paris at the age of 23.

The quartier‘s fashionable countess

A library for the necropolis

Le Petit Prince
Walter Gerstgasser (1934-1992), director of France Loisirs, the mail order book firm
Honoré Champion (1846-1913), French publisher who founded Éditions Honoré Champion in 1874; Sculptor: Albert Bartholomé

Cinema & photography

A dragon guarding the treasury of French films

Henri Langlois, archivist and preservationist of French films, founded Cinématèque Française and created the Musée du Cinéma. Jean Cocteau called him “the dragon who watches over our treasures.”

Henri Langlois (1914-1977)
Garder le Calme!!! Devant la DISSONANCE!!!

Without the ironic exclamation points: “Keep calm in the face of dissonance.” A good maxim for a film director, or anyone for that matter.

Claude Sautet (1924-2000), film director and screenwriter
A cinematic spotlight on crimes against humanity

Jorge Cedron was an Argentinian film director who fled to Paris after the military coup d’état of 1976. His films such as Operation Massacre engage issues of injustice surrounding political and military upheavals in Argentina. He died in Paris at 38, under mysterious circumstances.

Jorge Cedron (1942-1980)
Photographer of humanity

Philippe Joudiou was a French photographer who traveled widely, starting in the late 1940s, to countries in Europe, the Middle East, India and the Far East, and Africa. His black and white photographs mirrored to the world its own diversity of human culture and spiritual traditions.

Philippe Joudiou (1922-2008)
The homey photo cube

Musical remembrances

Vibrations Cosmiques
Never forget . . .

Olivier Greif was a French composer whose parents were Polish Jews. His father survived Auschwitz, a fact that profoundly affected Grief’s music.

Olivier Greif (1950-2000)

Greif’s Letters from Westerbork (1993), for example, is scored for soprano and two violins. Each of the three movements begins with a spoken text from the diary of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish Dutch woman who helped deportees at Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Netherlands. She herself was transported to Auschwitz at the age of 29, where she was murdered. Below is the text by Hillesum that opens the first movement:

We live here in indescribable misery. In the large barracks, we truly live like rats in a sewer. We see many children die for lack of care. Last week, a convoy of prisoners arrived in the middle of the night, their faces waxen and translucent. Never have I seen so much exhaustion and fatigue on human faces. In the morning, they were packed into freight cars.

Etty Hillesum, July 1943

Angels, wings

André Lhote

Lhote was a French cubist painter and art theorist strongly influenced by Gauguin and Cézanne. Notable for his use of colour, he said that “to use color well is as difficult as for a fish to pass from water to air or earth.”

His drawing of a pensive angel is affixed to his grave.

André Lhote (1885-1962)
Self-Portrait as Angel:
Autoportrait à l’ange, Christian Carle (1958-1995)
Maryse Bastié, pioneer aviatrice

Bastié smashed the glass ceiling for women aviators who came after her, setting multiple records for duration and distance during the 1930s.

Maryse Bastié (1898-1952)


The grave of sculptor Henri Laurens is decorated with one of his own works, La Douleur.

Grief by Henri Laurens (1885-1954)

Grave of Mexican artist Julio Ruelas:

Mexican artist Julio Ruelas (1870-1907)

Flowers of remembrance

La Fleur du Souvenir

Hands of remembrance

Perhaps it was Rodin’s sculptures of hands that started the popular practice of having one’s hands modeled, or of adorning graves with intertwined ones.

Ginette and Gabriel Brochard

Stones, acorns, & shells of remembrance

Next: A Museum of Memento Mori in Montparnasse Cemetery

Camille Martin

One response to “Paris Wanderlust: Necropolis Montparnasse

  1. Pingback: Paris Wanderlust: What Is the Job of a Cemetery Cat? | Rogue Embryo

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