A surrealist stroll: The Sex of the City

Today I’d like to invite you to time travel, I’d like to visit the Paris of the surrealists with you, of André Breton, Louis Aragon, of the painters André Masson and Juan Míro. Objections! This Paris doesn’t exist anymore. Right. But why shouldn’t we do it like they did: let’s drift a bit across town.

The roaring twenties

Something really magical happens in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris”: At the stroke of midnight, a car arrives and picks up Gil, played by Owen Wilson. He than travels from the present into the past of Paris, into the Twenties, where he meets his literary idols, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the authors of the lost generation, but also the Parisian surrealists.

The atmosphere is fascinating: Cole Porter is playing the piano, Gertrude Stein is reading a manuscript, Salvadore Dali talks about the beauty of rhinoceroses, whereas Luis Bunuel an Man Ray listen to the weird talks of the time traveller keeping a very straight face, surrealism oblige!

Brasserie Cyrano

You should have those scenes in mind when walking through Paris in the footsteps of the surrealists. This was the atmosphere: intellectually overheated and hilariously overexcited. Every night they met in the Brasserie Cyrano, at Place Blanche, just a stone’s throw away from Moulin Rouge. The writer Louis Aragon noted: “Everybody reported what he had done during the day, we told each other which fabulous creatures we had invented and which plants or ideas we had bagged.”

There is no Brasserie Cyrano anymore. Where it used to be you can find a hamburger takeaway today. From Cyrano to Quick. But once you’re here at Place Blanche, walk down rue Fontaine and stop at number 42. André Breton, author of the surrealist manifest and leader of the group, lived her for decades. His apartment soon became the heart of the movement. Writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, they all met at Breton’s home. The apartment quickly became a living museum with manuscripts, books, paintings, drawings, objects and masks.

The dispersion of the collection

When the collection was sold in 2003 long after Breton’s death (1966), the auction generated proceeds of 46 Million Euros, a surrealistic sum. All attempts to save this place as a museum were in vain.

Now put your sneakers on, take a map and walk down the hill on Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, Rue du Faubourg Montmartre until you’ll arrive at Boulevard Poissonnière.

Rotten mannequins

Here, between Rue Vivienne and Rue Notre Dame des Victoires, is the entrance to the Passage des Panoramas: Welcome to the Paris of 19th century. The passage brings you to Galerie des Varietés and Galerie Montmartre and gives you an idea of the famous passages of Paris. The surrealists loved them because, between World War I and World War II, they were completely abandoned. The empty shop windows and the rotten mannequins inspired them.

Now go back to the boulevard, turn right and walk down on Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle to the Porte Saint Denis. This is what Breton did every day. He was fascinated by the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle – probably because of its name: la bonne nouvelle means “good news”. And one day he met Nadja there. So take the novel and walk in the footsteps of the famous surrealist couple.

Monuments without context

The Porte Saint-Denis was – like the tour Saint Jacques – idolized by the surrealists because they were both monuments pulled out of their context: the tower of Saint Jacques was the belfry left over of Eglise Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur after the destruction of the church during the French Revolution. The same is true for the Porte Saint-Denis: the ancient gate of the city had lost its town walls and now stands all alone like a curious object in the middle of the urban chaos.

Jump on the métro at Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, take line 4 (direction of Porte d’Orleans), it brings you directly on the Ile de la Cite. Walk to Place Dauphine, which is the setting of the most beautiful pages of Nadja. Breton notes: “it is one of the most secluded places that I know, on of the worst terrain vague of Paris.”

The sex of Paris

Truth is that Breton saw in Place Dauphine the female sex of the city of Paris. Its triangular form, the slot, that divides it up into two tree-covered pieces, all this looked to him like the sex of a woman. The two arms of the river Seine that join each other at the pointed western front of the island would be, in this optic, nothing else than the legs of the lady. There is an erotic magnetism at stake on Place Dauphine, which is so strong that people prefer to avoid it. It’s actually one of the most beautiful and deserted squares in Paris.

To round off your surrealist stroll, cross the Seine and go to the Odéon. In the theatre of the same name you’ll find a stunning ceiling painted by none other than Andre Masson.

Another day

Not enough? Well, why don’t you visit the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. Or better still, keep it for another day. You’re tired now. But honestly, you can’t come closer to the Paris of the surrealists: They believed that the subconsciousness of Paris had its place there. Don’t miss le pont des suicidés (suicide bridge) – but don’t jump, don’t do it!

It used to be the Cyrano, now it's a Quick!
Photo: © Paris tourist office, Marc Bertrand