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Art Becomes Her

December 8, 2005 By:
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Jewish Women and Their Salons, published by Yale University Press, has the look, feel and proportions of a coffee-table book, and yet it's so much more than that limiting term implies. Subtitled The Power of Conversation, it is the work of Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun, with additional essays contributed by Leon Botstein, Shira Brisman, Barbara Hahn and Lucia Re. The work is also tied to a marvelous show that ran at the Jewish Museum from March to July of this year.

The tasteful cover - and the very heft of the book - would lead you to believe that there are lovely illustrations inside; and it's true, there are many, all of them thoughtfully chosen and exquisitely reproduced, as is the case with all such books produced by Yale. But it's the text that matters most here. While the illustrations are integral - immensely so in this context - they tend to fade a bit in the presence of such a weighty but effortlessly literate explication of the subject.

Those who already know something of the subject at hand may be able to dredge up several famous female names and nod in recognition. But once you begin to peruse the book, you realize your few names only skim the surface, and that the connection between Jewish women and salons, especially in early 20th-century Europe, is deep indeed - in fact, far deeper than you might have imagined.

These female names alone are evocative of specific time periods, and the writers, painters and musicians who defined them: Henriette Herz, Amalie Beer, Ada Leverson, Rahel Varnhagen, Genevieve Straus, Margherita Sarfatti, Gertrude Stein, Salka Viertel. And there are names that you may not recognize, but will get to know in depth: Fanny Hensel, Anna Kuliscioff, Florine Stettheimer, Berta Zuckerkandl.

Their salons speak of the depth and breadth of Europe, geographically, and of the idea of European culture in its modern incarnations. Beer, Hensel, Herz and Varnhagen - the earliest of these artistically heroic women - held their salons in Germany, which is not surprising, if one knows something of the history of Jews in Europe. Kuliscioff was Russian, Leverson British, Sarfatti Italian, Stein and Stettheimer American (though Stein's famous 20th-century salon was one of the highlights of Paris in the 1920s), Straus French, and Viertel and Zuckerkandl Austrian.

Herz, who lived from 1764 to 1847, was the first woman to ever host a salon. She was married at age 15 to Markus Herz, a physician and philosopher who studied with Immanuel Kant. Their Berlin home became the rendezvous point for some of the great writers and thinkers in German society of the period. After Markus Herz's death, his wife became friendly with Goethe, and had an epistolary relationship with Alexander von Humboldt.

Ada Leverson was married to an assimilated diamond merchant, and would become forever famous in literary history for inviting Oscar Wilde to her London salon after his arrest on indecency charges, when the rest of British society shunned him. She also entertained the artist and Wilde associate Aubrey Beardsley, and in later years continued her interest in the avant garde in the arts through contacts with T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Wyndham Lewis.

Stein, perhaps, needs no introduction. She was the subject of a great Picasso portrait, and she and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, entertained the famous painter and many others, including Hemingway and his "Lost Generation" pals, in their art filled living room.

Sarfatti was one of Mussolini's mistresses, and was a writer and critic of real talent who made a name for herself in Italy, and then, when things grew worse for Jews in Italy, in America, where she fled.

For those who know Marcel Proust's great multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, Genevieve Straus' name will forever be intertwined with the great French writer's life and work. Straus was first married to composer Georges Bizet, and was widowed at age 26 when the composer died of cardiac arrest following the disastrous premiere of his great opera Carmen.

What I have transcribed here is only the biographical tip of the iceberg. There's so much more - artistic and social criticism, and extensive commentary on the place of these astonishing women in the creation and safeguarding of art throughout several crucial centuries of modern European history.

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