"Gems from a Private Collection IV"
27.11.2008 - 06.12.2008
Kaarli pst. 8, Tallinn
CHARMED BY SALON ART
The term 'salon', popular in the second half of the 17th century, encourages one to think of gatherings aimed at educating and entertaining people, refining their taste and honing their conversation skills. From Mme de Rambouillet in the early 1600s to Mme Récamier two hundred years later, many salonnières exerted considerable influence on society by attracting the movers and shakers of their time — mainly intellectuals from different spheres of life.
The story of modern Parisian art begins during the time of Louis XIV. The Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture (later part of the Académie des Beaux-Arts) was a royally- sanctioned institution of art patronage, founded by Cardinal Mazarin in 1648. It subsequently came under the control of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finance who made the arts a major element in the glorification of Louis XIV. Art exhibitions called Salons were the places where members of the Académie could show their paintings. Quite different from the private salons of the salonnières, these exhibitions were organised under the protection of the state.
The first Salon took place in 1673, and gradually, these events started influencing French high culture. After 1725 the Salon was held in the Louvre, known as Salon de Paris. In 1737, the exhibitions became public and were held, at first annually, and then biennially. In 1748 a jury was introduced — its members were established artists. As a result, almost all the Parisian painters gravitated towards the Salons that gained undisputed influence. Parisian painters of the 18th century had the difficult task of pleasing both enlightened opinion in Paris and also the absolutist monarch and his retinue at Versailles. From the 1760s to the beginning of the 1780s, Denis Diderot reviewed several Salons, thus laying the foundation stone of art criticism.
The Parisian art world became remarkably volatile in the turbulent end of the 19th century. The jury notoriously refused to display Gustave Courbet’s major works, including “The Painter’s Studio” at the Salon during the Paris World Fair of 1855. Outstandingly famous by then, Courbet sensed an opportunity for further self promotion and opened near the official exposition a counter exhibition – Pavillon du Réalisme – to display 40 of his works. Some years before, at the 1852 Salon, Courbet had caused a scandal that made him an early media star: his non-idealised but attractive women were a slap in the face of conventional society that never wanted to see his frank and often explicit portrayal of ordinary people. Nonetheless, Napoleon III, who had taken a riding crop to Courbet’s “Woman Bathing”, was obliged to open a new salon in 1863 — Salon des Refusés was meant for the artists who had been excluded. This was the period that France had around 5000 writers and critics covering the art scene, while there were 12 000 active artists in Paris — the city that attracted foreigners.
In Salon des Refusés 2800 paintings were exhibited, among them "Luncheon on the Grass" (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) by Édouard Manet — the painting which is considered to be the beginning of the whole history of avant-garde art.
In 1874, the first show of the Impressionists took place in an apartment at Boulevard des Capucines lent by photographer Félix Nadar. Radical in their time, they broke the rules of academic painting. The critical response was mixed; some reviews were scathing, nevertheless, the new trend was set.
In 1881, the French government ceased to support the Salon and withdrew its sponsorship. Consequently the Société des Artistes Français was founded to carry on the task of organising the Salon. Its first president was William-Adolphe Bouguereau — one of the best known academic painters of his time. In 1888, 1889 and 1891, Amandus Adamson participated in the exhibitions of the society’s Salon.
In order to foster the ideas of the French school of artists, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Ernest Meissonnier and others with liberal views revitalised the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890. Since then its annual exhibition was reviewed as the Salon de Champ-de-Mars or Salon Nationale (traditionally opening a fortnight later than the official Salon, organised by the Société des Artistes Français). Their approach was innovative: catalogues were illustrated with photo reproductions instead of engravings; their curators displayed explicitly new ideas; members of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts could exhibit any number of their works.
In summer 1884 the Société des Artistes Indépendants formed in Paris, choosing the motto ‘no jury nor awards’. (Looking back, in 1849 the Salon had started giving medals to outstanding participants.) Its founding members were neo- and post-impressionists like Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec among others. At their exhibitions, all trends in art of the early 20th century were displayed and discussed.
In 1903, the first Salon d’Automne was organised by Georges Rouault, André Derain, Henri Matisse and other future fauves as a reaction to the conservative policies of the official Paris Salon. In no time the exhibition became a major showcase of developments and innovations of the 20th century painting and sculpture — artists from Montparnasse were the trendsetters up to the beginning of World War II. Still a display of world importance, the Salon d’Automne is now into its second century.
In 1923, the Salon des Tuileries was founded. This was the place where Adamson-Eric preferred to display his art; probably due to its reputation, based on the fact that only the art of high quality was displayed there. On the other hand, Wiiralt was a regular participant at the Salon d’Automne. And Jaan Koort, for example, displayed his works in several salons. It would make the story too long to list all the Estonians who have shown their art in the salons of Paris. Inspired by the ideas of résistance, the art critic Gaston Diehl founded the Salon de Mai in 1943. Six years later, the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles – the home of abstract art – was founded. The Salon des Artistes Français, the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts, the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon d’Automne — all of them have become modernised and continue their business today.
The Salon des Artistes Français (of the Société des Artistes Français) was the most conservative of them all. It kept the academic painting in awe and on the walls, resisting the new movements of realism, impressionism, symbolism and art nouveau that continued eroding it. Despite becoming more and more eclectic, the Salon des Artistes Français catered for the taste of its buyers who refused to accept new ideas and disturbing forms. The art shown in their salon had an aim to please the viewers — it tended to be either commercial or official. And those in the art world who considered themselves to be enlightened, despised this kind of salon art; it was not until the 1960s when the arrival of Pop Art changed the prevailing attitudes towards mass culture. Paintings by long-forgotten academicians were brought back to the walls of exhibition halls and hung next to impressionists and the rest.
Subsequently, the time of post-modernism set in with its pluralism and scepticism towards modernist ideas of progress. All the hierarchies and classifications that had held the art world together collapsed, and everything that had been marginal – including kitsch – was fashionable. Kitsch, based on mass production, meant sugary and vulgar handling of all the noble topics of art. However, its colourful concentration and naïve beauty made it appealing to art collectors who had been bored by the pretentious ideas of the high priests of modern art.
It would be wrong to equate kitsch with the art displayed in salons. True, in some salons kitsch became popular. However, most often it was produced by professional artists who managed to stay on the borderline between bad and good taste by tickling their fans — providing them either with erotic or pseudo-romantic satisfaction. Moreover, these painters’ manual skills were remarkable — the skills that have started disappearing not only from the arts but from modern life generally. Such a deficit makes people appreciate salon art.
The art stemming from salons is often highly decorative and works exceptionally well at home. It may create a subtle and nostalgic atmosphere. Similar to ancient Romans, a thoroughly modern man appreciates entertainment, and that is what paintings from salons can give him. The charm of salon art has been so overwhelming that even the most heroic in the history of art have not been able to fully escape it. In this connection, it is worth mentioning Courbet, the Impressionists, the Russian ‘peredvizhniks’, and certainly, Baltic German and Estonian artists. Art historians have recently been busy helping rediscover the forgotten salon art, and the proof of public interest is the enlivened art market.
The Rios, like most galleries, has had to consider the growing interest towards salon art. The present exhibition helps understand this art and explains its everlasting charm.
Text inspired by Mrs. Mai Levin