• Carmen Milligan

A return to "The Salon"

I have always been intrigued by the salon. No, not the kind where you get your hair and nails done. And not the one that is considered an intimate exhibit of art. I am talking about the one where people come together to discuss the aesthetics. It is, or was, the gathering of people to exchange ideas, art, and literature.

The most famous was the Saturday evening salon hosted by Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo in their Paris apartment in the first decades of the 20th century. The siblings filled their walls with original artwork from friends like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The double doors to the dining room were lined with sketches by Picasso. The apartment has been called the first museum of modern art, so prolific was this collection. And then, fate would bring Alice Toklas to the salon one Saturday evening. The three lived in the apartment for a while, but when Stein and Toklas decided to "marry", Leo left shortly thereafter, with the siblings amicably splitting the art collection. Basically, he got the Renoirs, and she the Picassos. The writing of Stein then blossomed under the encouragement of Alice, and the removal of Leo's constant criticism.


Lauded as the "Mother of Modernism", her writing sought to mimic the sharp lines and enigmatic themes of abstract art. While she wanted to reach a large audience, she continued to limit her accessibility to the general public by making statements about herself such as "being a masculine genius". There was so much to process: Stein was a woman, a lesbian, a Jew, loud and boisterous in nature, and (as she described herself) brilliant.


Anyone who was someone visited the Salon at one time or another. I would have loved to hear some of the conversations on these Saturday evenings when famous American expatriates were present, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thornton Wilder. Stein would hold court in the atelier, seated in a high-backed Renaissance chair, talking to those who interested her, and passing those who did not to Toklas. She must have looked like a great mama bear in that brown corduroy over-robe.


Can you imagine the ideas? The sparks of genius? The gentle direction and instruction for the writers, and the supportive admiration and encouragement for the artists? The Paris Salons made her famous in America. The very idea that these larger-than-life people were gathered, sharing cocktails, small meals, and conversation is fairly swoon-worthy.


Instead of modern day Salons, we have social media, agents, and glamourous nights where the rich and famous can congratulate one another on their work. But where is the collaboration? Where is the peer review? Where does iron sharpen iron today?


There's a lot to be said for going back to the Salon.

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