A Museum’s Storied Past

the tenants of hotel bironHow many visitors to the Musee Rodin know the details of the building’s strange, entangled history as a crucible for avant-garde art? Once known as the Hôtel Biron, by 1907 the eighteenth-century mansion had fallen into disrepair. For a brief time, the crumbling mansion became an artists’ haven.

Low rent attracted the likes of Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Eduard Steichen, Eric Satie, Rainer Maria Rilke, the sculptor Camille Claudel, and the famous dancer of the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky.

Laura Marello’s novel The Tenants of the Hôtel Biron invites us into this hotbed of artistic experimentation. She talks with Marylee MacDonald in a Paris Writers News interview

MM: Laura, how did you stumble on this story?

laura marelloLM: In 1973, as a freshman in college at the University of California Santa Cruz, I saw slides of Rodin’s artwork. As a sophomore I wrote a psychobiography of him for another course, and compiled a catalog of his work. As a senior I spent ten months studying in Paris. On Sundays I visited the Rodin museum. I knew I wanted to write a book on Rodin, but also a book about false documents. Eventually the two ideas merged and I wrote the book 1988-92 after fifteen years of research. Clara Westoff, Rilke’s wife lived in the house. Then Rilke encouraged Rodin to rent there. Matisse taught art classes in the chapel. Cocteau had a small bachelor’s apartment. I invited the rest into the house, though they never really lived there. The other details are mostly accurate.

MM: You tell the story from several different angles: letters (unsent), diaries, fictional biographies written by one tenant about another, and meditations on music, health, and spiritual practice. Each artist has his or her particular section, such as Pablo Picasso’s chapter on “Tribes and Tribesmen,” which is a kind of disquisition on the way Picasso might have viewed his art in relation to earlier art and to the art of his contemporaries. In “The Consolations of Eric Satie,” you’ve created a fictional notebook having to do with doctors, whether to marry or not, befriending Spanish painters, and contrapuntalism.

cocteau and matisseTo weave all these disparate elements together, you’ve created editorial interludes by the photographer Eduard Steichen. He begins the book by introducing us to the time and place, when all the dramatis personae lived at the hotel. Steichen’s editorial voice tells us that he is supposedly looking back from his home in Connecticut and the year 1967. Thus, he establishes his bona fides as a fellow artist, but one who makes his observations with the benefit of hindsight.

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