The Bistro: Art and Eating

George Upton reflects on the bistro, the humble eatery that has spawned revolution, some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century, and a uniquely Parisian way of life

Bystro! Bystro!

It’s 30th March 1814 and the streets of Paris are ringing with the cries of Cossack troops. For almost two years, following Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, the soldiers have been chasing the French army back across the continent, and now they are in the capital, victorious and hungry. “Quickly! Quickly! Bystro! Bystro!” they shout impatiently, quite possibly becoming the first foreigners to complain about Parisian customer service, as well as inadvertently coining the name of one of the most important social, cultural and, of course, culinary institutions in French history.

At least that’s one theory; the ranks of France’s gastronomic historians are yet to agree on the etymological heritage of the humble bistro, though there is a consensus that these cheap, informal eateries – part bar, part café, part restaurant – have been central in shaping French culture. After all, not long before the impatient Cossacks, it was in these simple Parisian dining rooms that – fuelled by inexpensive, traditional fare – debate and discord would boil over into the revolution of 1789.

Later the bistro would help foster some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. Still cheap and unassuming, it was at this time that the bistro would come of age: jacketed, white-aproned waiters floating through tables of solitary readers and rowdy drunks, carrying casserole and carafes of wine, the bustle of the street half muted by curtains pinned just above eye level. It was here, amidst the pimps and anarchists of the Lapin Agile in Montmartre, that Picasso would talk and drink and define the course of modern art with Modigliani and Maurice Utrillo, as Satie and Debussy sat at the piano. Or where, across the Seine at the Polidor, Hemingway would write – recording the trials of his lost generation and fellow literary expats, James Joyce and Henry Miller – and drink, and fight.

Today, the number of bistros has dwindled – 8,000 in Paris, down from 50,000 at the turn of the century – and many of those that remain have moved away from their uncomplicated culinary origins, but the tradition of the bistro remains strong. Immortalised in the ideas they fostered, still populated by thinkers and drinkers, the bistros are a living museum to a uniquely Parisian attitude to life, art and eating.

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

Elements: The Beret

Port’s fashion features editor, David Hellqvist, reflects on the long, colourful and not completely French history of the beret

‘Homme au béret basque’ by Picasso Pablo. Courtesy of RMN (musée Picasso de Paris) Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée Picasso de Paris)

Picture a beret wearer in your head and they’ll most likely be French. Perhaps they’ll be in a striped Breton top, if you believe in stereotypes. But if you were to trace the hat’s history, you’ll find that it’s got as much to do with Spanish fashion as with French mode.

The two often overlap, as was the case with French-Basque tennis player Jean Borotra, who famously wore a blue beret while playing at the Wimbledon championship throughout the 1920s. It was Borotra that helped popularise the beret internationally, bringing it to an audience outside of France and Spain, where it has been commonly worn since the 13th century.

But the beret has always had an artistic air too, which only makes its affiliation with elite special forces around the world even stranger. This mixture of the intellectual and the macho means it is an alluring piece of clothing to work with today, as proven by Isaac Larose and Marc Beaugé’s Larose Paris brand. Having mastered everything from the trilby to basketball caps, Larose Paris now also offers berets, with or without its signature zip pocket.

There is no one else, arguably, that personifies the beret and its creative ambitions quite like Pablo Picasso. Born in Malaga in south-east Spain, he spent most of his adult life living in France, where he died in 1973 from a heart attack.

Some viewed him as a sartorial role model as well as an artistic master, as suggested in the 2014 book Institute of Contemporary Arts: 1946-1968. According to its co-author Anne Massey, researching the book unveiled the true power of Picasso’s beret.

“Among the monthly internal bulletins we found one concerning lost property,” Massey says. “It revealed that berets were left behind around the time of the Picasso show – he wore one and everyone was trying to copy him.” Well, we know what they say about imitation…

Take a look at a brief history of the French chore jacket 

The Merchant of Moscow

Madeline Morley discovers how a member of Moscow’s mercantile class amassed one of the most extraordinary art collections of the twentieth century

“If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it. It’s a good one.” This was the advice that the great Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin gave his daughter at the turn of the 19th century.

Musée d’Art Moderne Occidentale, Moscow

During the first quarter of the 20th century in Russia, this small inconspicuous man with an uncontrollable stutter – a member of Moscow’s conservative and provincial merchant class – would open the doors of his Trubetskoy palace to the public to share his collection of paintings. Rooms adorned with the sunset palette of Matisse, the distorted perception of Picasso, the looming bodies of Degas and the earthy hues of Cezanne, all crowded under the ceiling’s ornate decor. It was here that a generation of young art students would draw from the canvases they observed and eventually find their way to abstraction.

Since Peter the Great, wealthy czars had supported the arts, but by the end of the 19th century, it was Moscow’s merchants – particularly Shchukin – who were buying the “shocking” work of new French painters, pieces like Matisse’s ‘La Danse’ and Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ that were scorned by the aristocrats of old Slavic-Russian values. It was well known that only Shchukin’s most sophisticated visitors could get a glimpse of one of his precious Gauguins, which he kept hidden behind a curtain.

He was a unique, open-minded collector, and regularly became close friends with the artists he supported. He would spend hours in front of a painting before he decided whether or not to purchase it, allowing its mood to wash over him.

In 1918, after immigrating to Paris with his family to escape the political upheaval of the revolution, Shchukin’s collection became the property of the state, and was hidden in museum storerooms. Almost 100 years later, the Foundation Louis Vuitton hosted an exhibition of 130 of his collected works.

“Nothing will ever replace the sensitive, invested, courageous and committed eye of the private art collector, enamoured often to the point of addiction and madness,” said the exhibition’s general curator, Anne Baldassari. Ultimately, Shchukin’s talent wasn’t business but instinct, curating and selecting the defining works of an art historical epoch. The show was a reminder of the power and eventual prestige that emerges from making the right choices at the right time.


This article was original published in Issue 19 of Port