“The idea was that anybody could come but for form’s sake and in Paris you have to have a formula, everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it…It was an endless variety. And everybody came and no one made any difference. Gertrude Stein sat peacefully in a chair and those who could did the same, the rest stood. There were the friends who sat around the stove and talked and there were the endless strangers who came and went.”
Gertrude Stein (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933).
You enter the room, greeted by the sounds of laughter, broken fragments of conversation from distant corners, a Cole Porter tune on the piano. More laughter. Introductions are made. Young writers and painters revealing themselves, shaping and reshaping, coming to blows by midnight, embracing by dawn, commingling ideas and colour and words and thought in one single space, confined by four walls.
A salon. What happened to the salon?
I stumbled upon a copy of Gertrude Stein’s “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, a richly humourous and virtually comma-free account of Stein’s years in Paris in between the First and Second World Wars. The book, of course, is actually Stein’s autobiography in the third person, told from the point of view of her partner, Alice Toklas. It would still be a wonderful book, full of unforgettable prose (such as a description of a woman as having a “George Washington face”), even if it didn’t concern Stein’s many salon guests, such as Matisse, Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Hemingway. Some of this has been captured in Woody Allen’s beautiful film, Midnight in Paris (great casting of Kathy Bates as Stein, by the way):
I’ve had this conversation with a number of friends, and these are the lofty, cerebral conclusions we’ve made:
1. Salons are cool.
2. Salons are informal. An organized event is not a salon.
3. Salons require direct and personal interaction without editing. An online community is not a salon.
4. Salons probably require a lot of booze.
5. Salons don’t exist anymore.
Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve become a society of rigid thinkers, so carefully scheduled and planned that we leave virtually no room for the unexpected encounter, for disagreement, for differences of opinion. We abhore conflict and challenge and critique and colour. We paint our walls beige because if we paint them purple, we might be judged and our condos will lose value and no one will ever love us. We think that art is either a class taken by children or something produced by a select club of BFA-wielding sprites, and opinion is something that is handed to us by television talking heads and professional pollsters. We are lacking the opportunities we once had to take real risks and make real connections with the Other, and because of this enormous gap, we now lack the ability to know ourselves better.
“Then there were quantities of germans, not too popular because they tended always to want to see anything that was put away and they tended to break things and Gertrude Stein has a weakness for breakable objects, she has a horror of people who collect only the unbreakable.”
Next Saturday night, and every Saturday night thereafter, I will display all of my breakable objects, open a bottle of wine, play the piano and see who arrives on my doorstep with a bucket of purple paint.
Why create a new space when you can clean up an old space? It took a while to dust off the cobwebs, but perhaps I can write more about that later. I’m hoping to use this space more frequently over the coming year or so. Welcome back!