Monday, 22 July 2019

Paris in July - French salons

I mentioned in an earlier post an exhibition about Claude Cahun, and that I bought a book in the art gallery about salons in Paris in the 1920s; Ett magiskt rum (A Magical Room) by Ingrid Svensson. It is an excellent and very interesting book. Unfortunately, I don't think it is translated. It was a nice surprise to read, and tells a lot about Paris at the time and the general atmosphere among the intelligentsia. She also gives and account on the background to all the expats 'overflowing' Paris at the time. "Art, literature and tolerance - not at least sexually - drew artists, writers and intellectuals to Paris."

Since the Middle Ages, the Left Bank has been the centre of the intelligentsia in Paris. This is where the literary circles gathered. People lived poorly, so the cafés became a meeting point. The area was full of small book shops. Montparnasse became the centre of art. Also here the cafés were important as places for people to meet.

The Salon 

According to Wikipedia a salon is:
"a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate" (Latin: aut delectare aut prodesse). Salons in the tradition of the French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries were carried on until as recently as the 1940s in urban settings."
The history  of the salons goes back to the antique, but it is often said to have started in France during the 17th century. One of the most important hostesses (it seems often to be women hosting these events) was Marquise de Rambouillets who dominated the Paris scene between 1610-1650. Here people discussed science and literature. After her came Madeleine de Scudéry. She was a writer herself and quite controversial in her own time. She was satirised by Moliére in his plays Les Précieuses ridicules and Les Femmes savantes. Her salon mostly discussed feelings and love, as a protest to the strict culture of the courts.

The salons in France were often magnificent as well as influential; they were dominated by art and literature, and the most influential guests were encyklopedists, filosofers and writers. The salon was developing as a power base that could influence even the elections to the French academy. It has also been argued that the academy is a mixture och institution and salon.


The Salons in Paris in the 20th century

Who were hosting the salons in Paris in the beginning of the 20th century? Marcel Proust was an eager visitor to the salons and he talks about Countess de La Rochefoucauld and madame Madeleine Lemaire. Both of them appear in his own texts. Another one that he frequented is Princess Edmond de Polignac's salon. These three women were part of presenting newly created art through their salons. Other salons were run by Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney. Polignac's salon was more directed towards music, Stein towards art and Barney towards literature. It was at Polignac's salon that people could listen to musicians like Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and many others. Durin half a century, from 1890 - 1940, she was the most influential hostess.

Countess Greffulhe, also admired by Proust and entered into his texts, was interested in everything new, but was a great patron for music. She supported, among others, Camille Saint-Saëns, Isadora Duncan, Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet. It was thanks to her that Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss came to Paris to conduct.

Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre was another hostess and writer. She had advanced ideas and was politically radical. To her salon came many different people from various areas of the society.

These are just a few of all the women hosting salons in Paris in the beginning of the century. They were influential in promoting upcoming writers, composer and artists. There were an estimated forty saloons during this time. Some of them lived on into the 50s, but today there are none in this sense of the word. One important aspect of the salons according to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska is the importance of servants. To be able to organise such grand evenings, you needed servants to take care of the administration.

Today the salons look different. They are open for bigger groups, from different parts of the society and take place in libraries and book shops. Literary societies arrange meetings with themes; either a single writer or a genre of books that will be discussed. Writer meetings are also quite common today. Personally, I think it is very interesting to meet a writer in person. Having said that, I would have loved to be able to go to a literary salon, either in 17th century Paris or in the 1920s.

Next post will be about the four important hostesses in Paris in the 1920s; Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. 

11 comments:

  1. Salons in one or another center of intellectual accomplishment are always interesting. Too bad your book is not available in French or English.

    I read a book about the three women who influenced Proust (mentioned in your post). It was by Caroline Weber, titled "Proust's Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siecle Paris." I didn't entirely like it; blogged about it here:
    https://maefood.blogspot.com/2018/11/proust-and-three-upper-class-models-for.html

    Best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. The book was a big surprise to me, I had no expectations, but it turned out a hit.
      How interesting that there is a book about these three ladies. I will look for the book. I am not sure I will be able to read Proust. Thank you for the tip.
      Interesting review of the book. I left a comment.

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  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your post. Yes, I remember reading about the Salon in Proust a few years back. Wish I'd had these background info at that time. Looking forward to your upcoming posts.

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    1. Thank you Arti. I am quite impressed. I think I will never be able to read Proust, although I would like too...! It is always interesting to have these kind of background information when reading even a fictional book. It gives it all another perspective.

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  3. I loved reading about the French salon tradition. I'm going to feature a little about it on my blog next weekend.

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    1. I find them quite interesting. I have started another post of the ladies who ran these salongs, but never had time to post it for July. Will come in October, hopefully. Loved you take on the French salons.

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  4. Great, thank you. Looking forward to read it.

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  5. This looks fascinating. Don't you love the idea of the salon? In a way I suppose book clubs are as close as we come to such a thing but it's not close to the same. Those are for people to examine what has been done, not to bring together the future artists and writers and such. I think I'd like this one. Thanks so much for coming over to my place too.

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    1. Interesting features, the saloons. It is quite interesting to think that most of these saloons were run by women. Otherwise, in those days, it was mostly men who entered into the more public life. Would have loved to go to one.

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  6. Thanks for this very educational and informative post. ,This month I have posted on two salon hostesses, Natalie Clifford Barney and Gertrude Stein, two very different women, both ran their salons in an autocratic fashion. Both did have multiple full time live in servants.

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    1. Interesting post, interesting women. I started a post which I did not have time to finish. Will maybe post it in October instead!

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