Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Return of the Salon

Art is the most elitist thing on earth. The most valuable thing around the dinner tables of the middle classes is to be able to talk in an educated manner about fine art, high literature and classical music. You don’t want everyone understanding.
Will Martyr, artist.

At the age of twenty-four, I began to read Proust. I don’t know why; I had built up a reputation for him in my head that was completely uninformed other than through the perceived gravity of the name – I hadn’t even ‘googled’ him. Proust. It even sounds like a great master.

First of all I went into one of the old bookshops on Charing Cross Road, reminiscent of that which Harry Potter frequents for his Hogwarts materials, because I believed that works of such sacred reputation must be read in their original hardback form, dusty and prone to disintegration within one’s hands. The acrid smell of old paper and its aged parchment shade of brown would add greatly to my experience of transition into this sublime world of which the great French novelist writes. I asked whether the assistant had any ‘Prowst or Borderlaire’. ‘You mean Proust?’ she replied, mentally searching the shelves. Her facial expression didn’t appear hopeful. She led me to the international fiction section. ‘No, it doesn’t appear so,’ she said. ‘Try Foyles. They’ll more than likely have the Proust in the new Penguin translation, which is apparently the best ever.’

Of course, publishing lines such as Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Editions are invaluable in their devotion to bringing history’s greatest literature back to the masses, but this was Proust, and I had mentally prepared myself for assimilation to the gentry, imagining myself in front of an open fire, bloodhound at my feet, pince-nez looking down on my original, preserved copy of one of the novels of Proust.

Failing all else, I trudged up the hill to Foyles. I had never been there before, and came to appreciate their policy of displaying fiction simply in alphabetical order, whereas most stores would display classic novels in their own little section. Towards the back of the ground floor I came to Proust, and saw seven novels in paperback, some Penguin and some Vintage. I took out the one whose title looked most interesting, Sodom and Gomorrah. The blurb referred to it as the ‘fourth volume’; I dismissed this to mean that this was his fourth novel, his cannon so sacred as to be appraised since as one. It continued, ‘Proust’s novel takes up for the first time the theme of homosexual love.’ And that was it. I took it to the counter. £8.99.

I took it home, and within several days, read up to about page 150 before realising that the characters were sketched as if I was already supposed to know them; gentlemen such as Jupien and the Baron de Charlus had implied histories which made their current actions more shocking than they perhaps would have been if their characters had been defined as such from the start; in my desperation to devour this work short of tearing out the pages and eating it, I had neglected to read what was written on the book’s spine: ‘In Search of Lost Time 4’. I went back to Foyles, and purchased the first volume, translated by Penguin’s scholars as The Way By Swann’s, to my ear clumsier but more romantic than the otherwise-popular ‘Swann’s Way’.

So I began The Way By Swann’s and thereby entered this time through the conventional front door, the world, introduced through a dream of sleep, of Proust, a journey that took me physically back to Foyles several times as I purchased the next volume just short of finishing the current, but spiritually, back to turn-of-the-century France, when there was still an aristocracy of the highest order in the world, one in which the narrator becomes deeply involved such as to document the very minutiae of even their most banal proclivities; the Duchesse de Guermantes admiring an actress in the street takes on far greater importance than a maid admiring the same actress, who, in comparison to the Duchesse, takes on the persona of the maid. It took me to a time I would like to have lived in, although my existence, should I have been allowed anywhere near these nobles at all, would have likely been spent in the kitchen or basement, rather than the drawing rooms of Mesdames de Guermantes, Verdurin or de Villeparisis; perhaps I might have found myself included in the circle of Mme Swann in her more coquettish (cocotte-ish) days, but only as her eunuch, so in the absence of the possibility of time travel, I had to be satisfied with the inside account given by Marcel Proust.

I had always wanted to become a writer, but had never known what to write about, so sought to write about everything, just as Proust did, aspiring to this ‘giant miniature’ as In Search of Lost Time was once described by Jean Cocteau. For Proust’s cork-lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, read my Spartan seventies-decorated room in Whetsone, London borough of Barnet; for the fading French aristocracy, read the tenuous positions of thousands of previously-untouchable City gents; for the rise of the middle classes, read the rise of the starving artist.

It seems that in such times as we find ourselves living in, we are required to communicate more than ever, and to look after one another. Those without means must befriend those with; artists rely on curators, curators rely on artists. Gallerists can ill afford to shop around for spaces in which to display their loans and acquisitions, so open up their homes, and in doing so, create salons in which these artists, and their friends, hang out to make their intellectual contribution. Artists, in order to create their work, must be alone, unless in collaboration, but in order to show their work, must become spontaneously social.

The salons as depicted by Balzac and Proust have returned, but without noble titles and great dowagers of immense wealth and family history. For the salon of Balzac’s Mme de Bargeton, in which the ambitious but shy young poet Lucien de Rubempre gives recitals, or of Proust’s Mme Verdurin, in which the violinist Morel charms with his exquisite technique, as the composer Vinteuil does with his sonatas, read Danielle Arnaud, Man & Eve, First Floor Projects and The Corridor, examples of London spaces in which the residents have opened up their homes to show their own, and their friends’ art.

The Corridor, for one, launched with its first exhibition in November 2008. Set in a former commercial unit in London’s Hackney, its residents, three architects, a fashion designer and an artist, felt that their entrance corridor and stairwell would be an ideal space in which to show art, and short of opening up as a public space (which wouldn’t please the landlords), by private appointment anyone can visit their shows. The opening nights are packed with artists, architects, musicians and writers, mostly assembled through networking sites such as Facebook, all of whom are forced to mingle in the tight space; champagne and wine are on hand to rouse the shier characters, and inspiration and collaborations frequently result.

The previous show, SCULPTURE NOT SCULPTURE, saw the aforementioned Will Martyr, as well as Adam Nathaniel Furman, Beverley Bennett, Alex Booker, Sarah Boris and Rhiannon Hunter, each in their own way provide commentary on the economy, sustainability and recycling, community, and regeneration. For The Corridor’s five curators, Christoph Klemmt, Amita Kulkarni, Emma Barrow, Vikrant Tike and Akiko Inette, and their democratic approach to selecting art to show based either on a unanimous decision or a compelling argument on the part of one, read the method of the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, evolved from the implacable Paris Salon of the fin-de-siècle.

‘Our house is known for great parties,’ says Klemmt, a graduate of the Architectural Association. ‘We always get a lot of people, interesting people on the creative side, and people interested in buying art. One of the reasons to start the Corridor was to network. Architects seem to have a problem of only knowing other architects; artists only seem to know other artists. So this seemed an interesting way for us to expand and bring people together.’

I, for one, attended the opening evening of the previous show, to see my old friend Beverley Bennett’s work, and have become friends with, and reviewed the work of, most of the other artists involved. It has kick-started my response to writing just as the entrance into high Parisian society did for a young Marcel Proust.

The Corridor’s next exhibition, ‘TF002’, an installation by the multidisciplinary design group TextFields: Amita Kulkarni, Vikrant Tike, Jerome Rigaud and Rajat Sodhi, opens on May 7. To book an appointment to view the piece, visit www.thecorridor.co.uk. For more information on the installation itself, visit www.textfields.net.

1 comment:

  1. I guess salons are in the air... :0)
    keep writing!
    and let me know next time there is a lovely event on like the last one you invited me to.

    ReplyDelete