Dora B. Montefiore 1907
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 8 August 15, 1907, pp. 464-467;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
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The name is perhaps alarming, but the deed itself is of rare initiative, charm and importance! In a deserted “villa” standing in a rambling, neglected garden at Créteil, a river suburb of Paris, a group of young artists, writers, poets have established themselves in communal life and aspiration; and are working out their ideal of a blending of manual and intellectual activities; in the belief that the consecration of six hours or so of their daily life to printing and lithographic work will set free their intellects to dream, write and paint—not what commerce and the bourgeois demands, but what the Muse and the moment, and “the mystery and power enshrined in them” compels. Their experiment, it must be admitted, is delicately difficult in an age when the lash of hunger drives so many of those who have not yet “arrived” to sell their talent for daily bread; offering as the only alternative starvation in an obscure garret. By this communal deed of revolt against the present economic enslavement of art and of literature they hope, therefore, to free themselves, and point the way towards freedom for others.
As is well known, Fourier was the originator of the Phalanstère idea, and in his “Traité de l’Association Agricole Domestique,” published in 1822, he elaborated his theory of a renewal of the ideals of society through organised communal life, and named his proposed communities “Phalansteres.” Our own writer and reformer, Robert Owen, was thinking much along the same lines, and as a result of this atmosphere of thought various communal associations have been from time to time founded; but their success has not been remarkable. This association of artists is, however, on different and more modern lines; and they are not merely dreamers, but have already proved themselves men of resource and of practical ability.
It was on a Sunday of this most coy and unsummerly June that I was invited with some Russian friends to visit the “Abbye” (as the group have named their artist settlement) and make the acquaintance of the rest of the “Abbots.” One can reach the Abbye by taking a bateau mouche to Charenton, from whence a tram, stopping at the parish Church of Créteil, puts one down within five minutes’ walk of the Phalanstére’s iron-barred and almost monastic doors.
But once inside the garden all ascetic ideals vanish in the sunshine; and the full luxurious revelry of midsummer smites on the senses: while one realises how the young artist-abbots had said to one another, “Let us make here an habitation, for it is good to be here!” Arched alleys of dwarfed, trained limes, delicately drooping pink-flowered acacia trees, blazing copper beeches, a half-acre of vines full in the eye of the sun, an orchard where wild strawberries redden underfoot, and mauve and scarlet double poppies flaunt in the grass. A neglected, sloping lawn, flanked by a vista of many-coloured, artfully-blended foliage, above which peeps the cupola of a garden temple, is destined by the abbots as the site of an outdoor theatre, in which are to be interpreted the plays of “les jeunes.” The “Villa” itself, after having stood eight years deserted and empty, has been repaired and made habitable by the work of the abbots. The long, low “common room,” extending the whole length of the front of the house, leads into the printing and lithographic workshop, through the wide open windows of which pours the summer sunshine, tempered by flickering green shadows. Directing the work there is one lithographic workman by profession; but he also forms one of the Brotherhood, and shares its ideals. The click and rattle of the machine goes on while we inspect the artistic bill-heads and posters that lie scattered around, or take down from the shelves the specimen books that have been printed by these communal workers. My Abbot friend, who had invited us over for the day, flits back and forth in a loose Russian blouse, now attending to some household detail, now pointing out to his guests the work accomplished, or explaining what has yet to be undertaken. In the stables and outbuildings the landscape painter has taken up his abode, and on an easel in his studio stand an impressionist sketch of the already vanished spring glories of the Abbye garden. In the rooms over the stable a married Abbot with wife and children is to establish his quarters before summer is over; whilst already in the “villa” two women comrades work with and share the ideals of their husbands.
It had been arranged that our visit was to take the form of a picnic; and each of us brought something to add to the simple feast that was to be spread and eaten on the grass. Our Entente-Artiste consisted of French, Russians and English. We drank in French white wine, and later on in sweet champagne to the health of the Abbots, and to the success of the Abbye; then we drank tea à la Russe, and smoked cigarettes as good comrades smoke them all the world over. We discussed gravely “une société renouvelée,” and more lightly the Utopias of Anatole France and of H.G. Wells. One of the Abbots, the Secretary of Viviani, spoke some English, others understood, or could read it. I recited to them, as a form of dedication suitable to their vital and protesting deed, the lines with which John Davidson prefaces his “Theatrocrat”: “To the generation knocking at the door.” The intense burning thought caught their fancy, and I was begged to write out the lines that they might be translated and kept among the muniments of the Abbye. Later on, letters signed by John Davidson were produced, acknowledging receipt of books sent by fellow-craftsmen, and recognising kinship of inspiration. Then as the day drew on we returned to the “Villa” inspected the “cells” of the various Abbots, peeped in at the kitchen, kept with scrupulous order, and rested in the cool spaciousness of the office, where the correspondence and business in connection with the typographic and printing enterprise are carried on. Here I was presented with copies of the works of some of the young writers with whom we had spent such a never-to-be-forgotten summer’s day, among them the poems of Charles Vidrac, the opening one of which tells of his dream of “L’Abbye Hospitaliére”:
A tous épris d’art plus ou moms crottés
Parce que plus ou moins déshérites . . . .
“Les gens de là et d’ailleurs” of Alexandre Mercereau and “Le Tragédie des Espaces” of Réné Arcos are both specimens of the “Edition de l’Abbye,” as is also (in its second edition) “La Tragédie Terrestre” of Henri Martin.
Returning home along that highway of the Seine, with its swirl of memories and its passionate artistry, I seemed to realise that, though the words I had heard to-day were the words of French artists, seeking self-realisation through their art away from conventions and economic trammels, yet the voice was the voice of William Morris, “artist, craftsman, and poet.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE