Impasse Ronsin. Murder, Love, and Art in the Heart of Paris

Jean Tinguely and Claude Lalanne, Impasse Ronsin, approx. 1960 Photo: Joggi Stoecklin, © 2020/2021 Museum Tinguely, Basel

Museum Tinguely, 16 December 2020 – 9 May 2021

In the midst of Paris’s Montparnasse district, Impasse Ronsin was both a dead-end street and a unique artists’ colony. For more than a century, it was a place of art, contemplation, conversation, celebration, innovation, creation and destruction, home to a broad range of diverse artistic identities that went far beyond the avant-garde, with artists including Constantin Brâncusi, Max Ernst, Marta Minujín, Eva Aeppli, Niki de Saint Phalle, Larry Rivers as well as André Almo Del Debbio or Alfred Laliberté. 

This first major museum exhibition to focus on Impasse Ronsin presents more than 50 artists with over 200 works, all made in this magic place. The layout of the exhibition’s sequence of studio spaces is based on the original street plan, surprising visitors with a previously unseen mix of artworks and stories that brings Paris to life as a melting pot and cosmopolitan city of art.


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Impasse Ronsin existed as an artists’ colony in Paris’s Montparnasse district between 1886 and 1971. At first, only a few artists lived in the houses on the right-hand side of the street, until the end of the nineteenth century when the French sculptor Alfred Boucher built around thirty studios at number 11 that were then used by artists from around the globe. Until World War II, there were always around thirty people living and working in the Impasse. From 1942, following the extension of the nearby Hôpital Necker, the number of inhabitants steadily decreased.

In 1908, Impasse Ronsin acquired a scandalous reputation when a double murder took pace at number 8, leaving Adolphe Steinheil and his mother-in-law dead. The main suspect was Steinheil’s wife, who had become notorious ten years previously as the lover of France’s President Felix Faure. A spectacular trial found her not guilty.

Postcards of the Impasse Ronsin, late nineteenth century

Postcards of the Impasse Ronsin, late nineteenth century

Alfred Boucher, Modèle nu dans l’atelier, 1884 (Collection privée)

Alfred Boucher, Modèle nu dans l’atelier, 1884 (Collection privée)

The sculptor and painter Alfred Boucher was among the early artists of Impasse Ronsin. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more and more artists from America began to arrive. The American «animaliers» Eli Harvey and Alexander Phimister Proctor, the Mexican sculptor Fidencio Lucano Nava, or the painter Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté and the sculptor Alfred Laliberté, both from Canada. They gave Impasse Ronsin an international reputation as a creative place at the heart of Paris.

Reginald Pollack (1924–2001), Untitled, 1948 Oil on canvas, 56 × 41 cm Collection of Pollock Fine Art © the artist or his successors

Reginald Pollack (1924–2001), Untitled, 1948 Oil on canvas, 56 × 41 cm Collection of Pollock Fine Art © the artist or his successors

The most prominent inhabitant, who was also among the longest-standing, was the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brâncusi. He lived and worked on Impasse Ronsin from 1916 until his death in 1957, by which time he had five connecting studio spaces where he not only made his works but also created a lasting monument to his art and to the artists’ colony. Today, a reconstruction of Brâncusi’s studio can be visited outside the Centre Pompidou.

After World War II, a new generation of American artists came to Impasse Ronsin. Young abstract expressionists like Reginald Pollack or Oscar Chelimsky, often funded by the G.I. Bill, enlivened not only the cul-de-sac but also, with artist-run spaces like Galerie Huit (1950-52), the Parisian art scene. Together with artists already living in the city, like Joseph Lacasse or Marie-Thérèse Clément, they made a lasting impact on the life of the colony in the 1950s and ’60s.

Jean Tinguely and his wife Eva Aeppli arrived on Impasse Ronsin in 1955. Tinguely soon made contact with other artists in the colony, pooling funds with Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne and James Metcalf to buy welding equipment. In a frenzy of activity, he quickly laid the foundations for his entire oeuvre: early reliefs, the first Machines à dessiner (1955), followed in 1959 by a whole series of drawing machines, his collaborations with Yves Klein in 1958, and much more.

James Metcalf, Frustrated Machine, 1960–61 Copper, driven and welded, 84 × 40 × 30 cm Collection particulière, Paris Photo © 2020 Galerie les Yeux Fertiles, Paris © the artist

James Metcalf, Frustrated Machine, 1960–61 Copper, driven and welded, 84 × 40 × 30 cm Collection particulière, Paris Photo © 2020 Galerie les Yeux Fertiles, Paris © the artist

François-Xavier Lalanne sitting in his studio, ca. 1959  Photo: Joggi Stoecklin, © 2020/2021 Museum Tinguely, Basel

François-Xavier Lalanne sitting in his studio, ca. 1959 Photo: Joggi Stoecklin, © 2020/2021 Museum Tinguely, Basel

The American sculptor James Metcalf arrived on Impasse Ronsin a year after Tinguely and stayed until 1965. With his exuberant creativity and his well-founded material and technical skills, he became an important figure by inspiring his artist friends (who included the Lalannes, Tinguely and later Larry Rivers) and introducing them to new techniques. Claude Lalanne first practiced the technique of galvanization in Metcalf’s studio – and her early models included the hand of Jean Tinguely.

Eva Aeppli in the Impasse Ronsin, 1959 Photo: Joggi Stoecklin, © 2020/2021 Museum Tinguely, Basel

Eva Aeppli in the Impasse Ronsin, 1959 Photo: Joggi Stoecklin, © 2020/2021 Museum Tinguely, Basel

Life at Impasse Ronsin was captured among others by Joggi Stoecklin, a young photographer from Basel who followed Eva Aeppli and Jean Tinguely to Paris in 1955 and took many pictures of the two artists, their works, their studios, and the colony as a whole until the end of the 1950s. His photographs document life, art and creativity over these five years from the viewpoint of a flatmate – as in this image of Eva Aeppli «slaughtering» a cabbage.

From 1954 until the final demolition of the last studios in 1971, the sculptor André Almo Del Debbio ran a studio where he taught students from around the world the various techniques of sculpture. Taking place in the immediate vicinity of Constantin Brâncusi and James Metcalf, this teaching activity epitomized the image of Paris as a city of art.

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely became a couple in 1960. As well as for her first shooting actions, the Impasse became the setting for other art actions such as Arman’s destruction of a violin (1961) or Marta Minujín’s burning of her entire oeuvre (1963) and was perceived as a lively home of the avant-garde.

Del Debbio’s studio with students, 1970 Photo: Jean Fage, Paris

Del Debbio’s studio with students, 1970 Photo: Jean Fage, Paris

Impasse Ronsin was often romanticized, even more so after it ceased to exist. This exhibition is dedicated to the diversity of artistic creation that found a home there, presenting not only the established artists like Brâncusi, Max Ernst, William N. Copley, Eva Aeppli or Niki de Saint Phalle, but also students from Del Debbio’s studio and other now largely forgotten artists from a hundred years of Impasse Ronsin. 

The exhibition was co-curated by Adrian Dannatt and Andres Pardey.

Catalogue
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, book price (both German and English edition) at the Museum shop or online: 42 CHF // ISBN (EN): 978-3-96900-018-2.

Jeanne Hillairet de Boisferon Ray, Ateliers Impasse Ronsin – allée ateliers Del Debbio, 1969 (collection privée)

Jeanne Hillairet de Boisferon Ray, Ateliers Impasse Ronsin – allée ateliers Del Debbio, 1969 (collection privée)