Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Origins of Bohemian Culture

West Bohemia, Czech Republic.
      Lovely, isn't it? It's the real Bohemia. I say "real" because Bohemia nowadays could also be any place where an artist or any creative person work and live cheaply and enjoy being their radical selves.

    But what's the link between Bohemia, part of today's Czech Republic, and the people practicing Bohemianism? Is there actually a link? Well Bohemia is not really the world's capital for art and literature. You probably made that guess hehe. But you may find it interesting that Bohemia was once a kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire. So it was a country with a history that began in the 11th Century.

       Bohemianism actually emerged in Paris during the late 19th Century when artists began to concentrate in low rent neighborhoods during the Belle Epoque (Beautiful Era) - a period in Europe where peace and prosperity allowed the arts to flourish. Many notable artists worked and lived in Paris in this period that started in 1871 and ended at the start of World War 1 in 1914.

The Eiffel Tower was built during the Belle Epoque 
to serve as the grand entrance to the 1889 World's Fair.

Vincent Van Gogh was among many artist 
who lived in Paris for a time, particularly in
Montmartre where rents quite affordable.

      So these economizing artists started to live in low rent neighborhoods in Paris that are also occupied by gypsies. The gypsies were at that time called "Bohemien" because they were thought to have arrived from Bohemia. Gypsies actually refer to the Romani people - a nomadic ethnic group living mostly in Europe and the Americas. Their linguistics and genetics suggest that they originated in Northwest India and migrated as a group in medieval times.

An all-male gypsy band in the 1800's.
The Bohemian, William Bougueerau, 1890.
       The Romani people themselves are gifted in the performing arts. They are known for their music and dances. Their music has influenced many European classical composers. The distinct sound of their music has in fact influenced bolero, flamenco and jazz in Europe.

Bal do moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir,
depicts a typical Sunday afternoon dance in the 
district of Montmartre in Paris.

       Now imagine a suburban neighborhood in 19th Century Paris that is home to people who are "different". You have the dark skinned, black haired music loving gypsies; and the free-thinking French artists who broke the norms that led to the rise of modern art. These people probably got along quite well. The artists may have been drawn to the gypsies' non Western aesthetic culture, and the gypsies in turn favored their artist neighbors for being  non-discriminating and even appreciative.

Renoir was among a handful of 19th Century artists
who rented space at 12 rue de Cortot which today
is known as the Montmartre Museum.
       Now I'm not certain if the artists who lived in such villages started to adopt the multi-cultural fashion and the laid-back lifestyle of the Parisian gypsies and began to call themselves "Bohemiens" also, or people might have given them that as a moniker. Whatever it was, this new term for such breed of artists has survived a millennium after the Belle Epoque and its use has crossed the borders of Paris and into the shores of many cultures.

US clothing brand Artisan de Luxe came up
with a seemingly "street bohemian" style 
collection for Fall 2013.
     Yet today not everybody is aware of what a bohemian is because not everybody has an interest in the arts. Not everybody is an artist and in fact not every artist is bohemian. Others may think that bohemian is simply a style in fashion. Try typing "bohemian fashion", "gypsy fashion" or even "hippie fashion" on Google and you'll pretty much see the same thing.

     Of course to be a bohemian, or to practice bohemianism, is to make art an integral part of ones life to the point of unconventionality. They are painters, sculptors, writers, journalists, singers, musicians and actors who gave up their material well-being, wandering like a vagabond  in search of their own Bohemia, waiting for the Belle Epoque of their creative endeavors.


  1. Thanks Chris, I always wondered about the link between artists and the word Bohemian. A fantastic movie about the Romany is: Latcho Drom (Romanian for "safe journey") describes the travels, singing and dancing of Romany groups from Rajahstan (India), Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain.
    I hope you get as much joy from this movie as I do from receiving your posts. Cheers, Ingrid (NZ)

  2. Hi IngridNZ! Thanks for sharing this. I'm already watching part 2! This is really awesome!

  3. Goodness.. Great read and informative...Thanks and I would love to check out that movie.
    Bohemianism/Gypsy life/Hippie Ways are to myself Romantic mischievous and real.. I am really glad that I stumbled here through my adventure...

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