Years ago, in the basement of Yale University’s rare-book library, I stumbled upon two Louis XV armchairs that once belonged to Gertrude Stein. They were upholstered in needlepoint by Alice B. Toklas according to Picasso’s designs. Those chairs long haunted me. They evoked a knowledge remote from the arid deserts of Kant and Hegel to which my studies had confined me—a distinctly feminine savoir faire, a domestic sublime, redolent of the body and warm with conviviality. High culture in an armchair! Needlepoint and Picasso! Just sitting around, they seemed to suggest, in the right company, might be a form of art.
That premise informs “The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons,” a provocative and engaging show currently at New York’s Jewish Museum. It focuses on 14 Jewish women whose elegant drawing rooms or beachside bungalows, in cultural meccas from 18th-century Berlin to 1940s Santa Monica, attracted a dazzling array of artists, politicians, and intellectuals.
Stein’s Saturday evenings at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, where modernist luminaries and hangers-on debated the merits of cubist painting, are legendary, but the fame of other hostesses included here has faded like the gilt on a teacup’s rim. Yet their achievements, the curators Emily Bilski and Emily Braun argue in their richly informative catalog, were lasting. As talent scouts, power brokers, and muses (as well as accomplished artists and thinkers in their own right), they shaped culture and politics.
“Austria comes alive on my divan,” crowed Berta Zuckerkandl, a journalist and critic whose fin de siécle Viennese living room gave birth to a succession of avant-garde art movements (and who knows how many love affairs). There Gustav Mahler met his future wife, the composer Alma Schindler, while the painter Gustav Klimt, her former lover, seethed nearby. Perhaps he raised an impossibly lean and elegant liqueur glass by Kolomon Moser—whose Wiener Werkstatte designs Zuckerkandl energetically promoted, along with Klimt’s art—to his lips in exasperation.
Bilski and Braun do their best to conjure the elusive ambience of such soirees. Portraits of salon habitués ring the galleries where their art, designs, and manuscripts are displayed along with guest books and other ephemera. An indispensable audio guide quotes from their letters and diaries and provides snippets of their music and imaginary conversations.
The first Jewish salonieres, in 18th-century Germany—stretching their wings in the wake of Jewish emancipation and acculturation—imported a French idea of sociability, in which (if men still predominated) the sexes mingled freely and feminine politesse prevailed. Yet no one forgot the hostesses’ religion, not the Gentiles who enjoyed their hospitality despite lingering anti-Semitism nor the early salonieres themselves, who frequently converted under pressure of discrimination.
Were the salons liberating forces for women or congenial spaces of confinement? Consider Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn, sister of the composer Felix, whose prodigious musical gifts promised a brilliant public career. Instead, in their family’s Berlin mansion, she hosted weekly Sunday matinees, where she performed her own and her brother’s compositions (among others) for invited company often numbering in the hundreds, alongside such stars as Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Sheltered within the home, who knows what price she paid in talent and ambition?
Fin de siécle salons, like the mix of bohemia and high society that gathered around Geneviéve Straus in Paris, exerted a feminizing influence on modernist literature, with its meandering, conversational ambiguities. (A short film on the melancholy Mme Straus, who inspired Marcel Proust’s portrait of the Duchesse de Guermantes, leaves one longing to know more.)
Politics had a way of shutting salons down. Oscar Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” removed the main attraction from Ada Leverson’s London soirees; in France, the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish military officer was falsely accused of treason, split Straus’s drawing room irreparably. (She and Proust were ardent defenders of Dreyfus, while Edgar Degas found his latent anti-Semitism revived.) In Germany, the salon’s cosmopolitan ideals came to a full stop under fascism, though a steady stream of wartime refugees showed up at the Santa Monica home of German expatriate actress Salka Viertel, whose living room welcomed both Bertolt Brecht and Greta Garbo.
But perhaps the salon’s purest flowering—and this show’s greatest visual delights—may be found in the eccentric art of Florine Stettheimer, who with her sisters, Carrie and Ettie, entertained a select circle of European and American artists and intellectuals in New York between the world wars. Elegant in Poiret, Carrie led the company; Ettie, a novelist, was the greater flirt. Florine, the painter, was wealthy enough not to worry about selling; palling around with Marcel Duchamp could have been an end in itself. Instead she made their elaborately orchestrated fetes the subject of her marvelously fey and rococo art. “Our parties/Our picnics/Our Banquets/Our Friends/Have at last a raison d’ she wrote in a poem. “Seen in color and design/It amuses me to re-create them/To paint them.”