Kate’s Paris: cafés of Montparnasse

Montparnasse Bienvenüe is one of the busiest métro stations in Paris, and, being a transfer station for several lines, one of the largest. I discovered it’s also an easy place in which to get lost. I seemed to be walking for miles through tunnels and along travelators before finding my way out!

Among the many things to see in Montparnasse are the cafés along boulevard Montparnasse and its arteries. For Kathleen O’Connor and thousands of other artists, these were part of a way of life in the years before the First World War and through the 1920s. They would meet there at the end of the day for replenishment of one form or another—hearty food or a bowl of coffee, information or gossip, serious or not so serious discussion about art and life.

Kate revelled in

the café life, which to me is almost the most fascinating of all there is to see. Cafés dancing with lights, glasses glittering with reflections, and with it all the music of many voices, the babble of many tongues.

As I stood on the corner of boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, with the distinctive red facade of La Rotonde in front of me, Le Dôme on the other side and La Coupole a few paces from that, it occurred to me that these iconic landmarks are as instantly recognisable as the Eiffel Tower.

Just as they had been the centre of life for foreign artists in Kate’s Paris, today they are a beacon for tourists. I watched them coming and going, listened to ‘the babble of many tongues’.

But there was not a paint-stained smock among them.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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Legacy

KLOC ©RWoldendorp

Kathleen Laetitia (Kate) O’Connor died in the late hours of 24 August 1968, just before her ninety-second birthday. Fifty years ago today.

I am trying to imagine what a tweet from Kate would sound like. She was, in the context of her time, a dab hand at self-promotion—she had to be—and if I could spirit her into today’s world she would probably take to social media as though she was born to it.

Her voice is clear in my mind, but I can’t make the language work for Twitter. Nor the need for brevity.

A word to say that that nice young man Mr Lipscombe, very sensible type, is getting up an exhibition of my pictures at his salon at the Fremantle Arts Centre. I expect you’ll want to come. In haste to post, Kathleen L O’Connor #ParisInFremantle #AllTheSmartSetWillBeThere

The coming exhibition and my book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris celebrate her long life and a career that spanned six decades.

When Kate left Perth in 1906, ostensibly on a year-long sojourn to the Old Country, she was intent on pursuing a career as an artist. Paris, she said, was always her objective.

She spent most of the following fifty years abroad, exhibiting among artists she revered in the highly competitive salons of Paris, in many prestigious exhibitions, in two solo exhibitions. Her work was noticed, often lauded, by French critics. Financial reward eluded her, but her story speaks to a different kind of success.

In Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia staged two major retrospectives during her lifetime, and exhibitions in Adelaide and Melbourne brought her wide acclaim in the last years of her life.

I wish she could have known that there would be yet another retrospective at the state gallery. That her glorious decorative arts, very much the product of 1920s Jazz Age Paris, would be the feature of a new exhibition. That her paintings would become sought after, attracting high prices at auction. That her work would find its way into the national galleries of Australia and New Zealand, every state gallery and major collections across Australia. That fifty years after her death, she would still be an inspiration to other artists, and writers, too.

But none of us ever knows what the future will make of us, what our legacy will be.

I try another Kate-tweet.

A word to say that there is a book written up about all I have done, by that writer woman (you know the one? peculiar hair). The questions! She has taken liberties, I expect, but c’est la vie. #SheShouldWearAHat

Ah, Kate.

Being There—Kathleen O’Connor in Paris
runs at Fremantle Arts Centre,

14 September to 4 November 2018, 10am–5pm.

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris
will be released by Fremantle Press in November 2018
and is available for pre-order now.

A pre-release launch of the book will be part of the exhibition opening,
13 September, Fremantle Arts Centre.

Photograph courtesy Richard Woldendorp

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Research: 8 tips

iStock_000018482964XSmallResearch is an inspiring, challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, exhilarating part of the process of writing a book. I know that some writers find it a chore, but for me it’s where ideas grow, and I am very much at home in libraries and archives or in front of my own laptop, exploring, speculating, following threads. The hardest part for me is to stop, as there is always another thread…

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Begin with a plan—all the things you know you want to cover. But that’s only the start: you don’t yet know all the things you will want to know. And the more you know, the richer your work will be. Be flexible; refine your research plan as you go.

2. Keep a record of your sources: full referencing details, page numbers, links, dates of interviews and conversations. It will save you hours later.

3. Follow tangents: they are often where the magic lies.

4. Photograph everything, even when you’re transcribing or taking exhaustive notes. Photographs add another dimension, and can also serve as a backup.

5. Take your own pulse along the way: whatever makes your heart race is gold.

6. The net is a constantly changing beast. Repeating a search six months after your first might reveal new information. (Something I learned, to my joy, in researching Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.)

7. Organise your research materials. It doesn’t matter whether you use manila folders and boxes, digital files or software programs: you just need to be able to easily retrieve information later.

8. Know these truths: the research will always take longer than you think; it will never be enough; and yes, at some point, you will have to draw a line, and stop.

One more thing: I’ve heard it said that allowing yourself to be ‘distracted’ from the main topic you’re researching is self-indulgent and a waste of valuable time. But it was through reading widely while researching The Sinkings that I happened on something that turned out to be one of the inspirations for Elemental. I like to think that, when it comes to research, nothing is wasted.

Good luck with yours!

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Tea and conversation in Mandurah

Cup of tea with teapot and vintage books on wooden table Blue background

If you’re in the Mandurah area, or are close enough for a lovely drive, the Mandurah Readers & Writers Festival is on next week, Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 August. Guests include Michelle Johnston, Carrie Cox, Louise Allan, Dervla McTiernan and Laurie Steed.

I’m delighted to be sharing the opening session with the wonderful Liz Byrski (whose new novel, A Month of Sundays, has just been released). We’ll be talking about our books, our approach to writing, our inspirations—and anything else that chair Kathy Heys would like to ask us. There will be morning tea, too—always a bonus!

The session is free, but bookings are essential.

Meet Liz Byrski and Amanda Curtin
10–11.30am, Wednesday 22 August
Fishtrap Theatre, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre,
Ormsby Terrace, Mandurah
Bookings here

We’d love to see you!

 

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Kate’s Paris: Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette is a spectacular emporium in the heart of Paris’s Opéra district—palatial architecture that whispers of a bygone age, moderating the din of twenty-first century retail. It was October when I was there, on the trail of Kathleen O’Connor, but the store was already in the process of being decorated for Christmas, with a white tree rising through the central atrium.

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Kate’s connection with Galeries Lafayette was in the 1920s, when she diversified into the decorative arts. She produced designs for fabric, wallpaper and soft furnishings in a modernist style influenced by Art Deco—wild colours and avant-garde creations that suited Jazz Age Paris but were considered ‘startling’ and ‘bizarre’ in Australia.

Her clients included La Maîtrise, the design workshop of Galeries Lafayette headed by renowned designer Maurice Dufrêne.

You can see an example of Kate’s handpainted fabric on the National Gallery of Australia site here. I would not usually describe myself as a covetous person when it comes to clothes, but oh, how I covet that dress!

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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Kate’s Paris: rue de la Grande Chaumière

Rue de la Grande Chaumière is a quiet little street that runs between boulevard Montparnasse and rue Notre Dame des Champs in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Buildings on both sides of the street are mostly unremarkable—four, five or six storeys, lots of shuttered windows, a few planter boxes. Fairly plain, for Paris.

I was interested in numbers 9 and 16: artist Kathleen O’Connor lived at 9 before the First World War, and at 16 after her wartime return to Paris from London.

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At number 16, there were three street-level doors—a charming little cordonnerie (shoe repair shop), a wide green door to the apartments upstairs, a restaurant beside that—with line of motorcycles parked in front of them.

I looked up at the three levels of shuttered windows above. Kate had probably lived in a single studio room on the top floor—the cheapest. No running water, no heating, a gas ring if she was lucky, a communal toilet. There was a light on in one of those windows now, a red towel hanging over the wrought-iron window box. How many rooms of the kind Kate lived in had been joined to form a modern apartment?

At number 9, I found a little boutique art hotel, the Hotel à la Villa des Artistes. It looked quite modern but claims to have had Beckett, Fitzgerald, Foujita and Modigliani among its former guests. And this was Kate’s address, too, in mid-1913.

I was thrilled to see, opposite at number 14, that the Académie de la Grande Chaumière was still there, and still a working academy. Kate sometimes attended its evening sketch classes, and Lucien Simon and Claudio Castelucho were among her tutors.

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In 1913 she wrote from her room across the road:

In the midst of the Quarter, I am overlooking the school of Carlrossi [Colarossi, number 10] and the Grande Chaumière, and always there are passers-by. At the hours of the school one sees students hurrying in, armed with canvases, paint-boxes, etc., all sorts and constitutions of students of every nation.

As I watched, imagining Kate’s Paris, a van pulled up outside and began unloading boxes of—well, I couldn’t see of what. But they had to be watercolours, pastels, tubes of oil paints, brushes…Just had to be.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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Happy Bastille Day…

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Taken not on Bastille Day but on a snowy January day in one of the coldest Paris winters of recent times.

 

 

 

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