Sculpture and art amongst the dead and buried

from the Artsology series The Arts Adventurer

Early on in my trip to Paris, I bought a museum pass, which for one flat fee, allows one to bypass the long general admission lines and move right into most of the major museums throughout the city. But the museum pass has a time limit, and in my case, I bought a two day pass, so I had to make use of it on 2 consecutive days to get my money's worth. While I enjoyed the museums very much, by the end of the 2nd day, after going to the Louvre, the Musée de lé Orangerie, and the Pompidou all in the same day, I was ready the next day to stay out of the museums and hit the streets looking for a different type of visual arts experience.

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I suddenly had a strange burst of inspiration, if you can call it that, for an unusual approach to the day – I would search for visual interest amongst the dead, so to speak ... I had heard of the Catacombs, which the Parisians had set up in the late 18th century to hold the skeletal remains of about six million people within a renovated section of caverns and tunnels under the city. It is located in the same part of the city where I could also explore the Cimetiére du Montparnasse (the cemetery of Montparnasse, as pictured below), and both of these destinations would be a new experience for me, as I had visited neither on my last trip to Paris approximately 20 years ago.

view of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris

As I got off the Metro, I saw a street sign pointing out that the Catacombs were near, but it took a little walking around in circles before I realized that an old, poorly marked metal shed was the entry point. Unfortunately, as I went closer to enter, I saw a posted notice that the Catacombs were closed due to air conditioning problems. Considering that it was approximately 50 degrees outside, the need for air conditioning wasn’t apparent, but there’s not much one can do when there’s a padlock on the door.

So, on to the cemetery. I did have some expectations to find some interesting things there, as I had visited the Cimetiére du Pere Lachaise (the famous one where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried) on my trip 20 years ago, and remembered all of the elaborate head stones and sculptural elements. I knew from my guide book that there were some famous people buried in Montparnasse as well, so when I entered the cemetery, I took a brief look around, and then decided to search for a map so that I could find the famous graves. I encountered someone who appeared to be a groundskeeper, and when I asked him about a map, he gave an unusual reply: "I will give you a map, in exchange for a smile."

I couldn’t help but to crack a smile at a comment like that, and so then I had my map. But there was so much to see in my immediate area, the southeast corner of the cemetery, that I just started walking around and taking it in, without any immediate search for notable residents. At right is a slideshow of some of the more-interesting things I saw, from various "unknown" (to me, at least) graves throughout the cemetery:

As far as the better-known arts figures who are buried in Le Cimetiére du Montparnasse, here’s a selection of those that I found: first up, below left, we have Jean Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, who is buried alongside of his wife, Simone de Beauvoir, who was also a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, and political activist. Note the lipstick kisses all over the gravestone; obviously some enthusiastic fan wants to share some love with this couple, even as they rest in peace.

Next up we have another joint grave for a married couple: the photographer Man Ray and his wife, Juliet (below right). While her portion of the headstone shows a photographic portrait and the phrase "together again," Man Ray's headstone has words that almost appear in a handwriting-like style, with the cryptic message "Unconcerned, but not indifferent." It seems that was a phrase that Man Ray often used to describe himself, and so his wife had that noted on his grave at the time of his death.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Man Ray and wife Juliet at the Cemetiere Montparnasse

This extremely colorful and attention-grabbing grave (below left) features a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, but it is not her grave; I learned later that she designed this sculpture for the grave of her long time assistant, Ricardo Menon (note the name “Ricardo” inscribed across the front).

One notable non-French person buried here – and somewhat recently too – is the American writer Susan Sontag (below right). I would be curious to know how an American manages to get buried in a historical cemetery in Paris, one that doesn’t seem to have much extra space for new graves ...?

Ricardo Menon's grave, long time assistant to Nikki de Saint Phalle

emetiere Montparnasse hosts the grave of American writer Susan Sontag

Below left we have the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who is also the recipient of the mysterious lipstick-covered grave kisser.

And to wrap up, we see here the very simple graves marking the resting place for two more influential artists: the photographer George Brassaí, and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Charles Baudelaire grave at Cemetiere Montparnasse

graves at Cemetiere Montparnasse for photographer Brassai and sculptor Brancusi

At the end of my visit, I was actually a bit surprised how much time I had spent here – a little over 2 hours! Part of it was taking the time to find the notable graves – even though I had a map, it wasn’t exactly precise, and took some trial-and-error in walking along the paths to find a specific grave in a general area. But it was just the sense of history, the wild range of visual images, from classic to modern sculpture, and the quiet peace that lent itself to the exploration. At this point of my day, it was time for lunch, and time to leave the cemetery and see what I could find in the streets of Montparnasse.

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