November-December 2007

The Salon Des Refuses

BY ROSS ALTMAN

In 1863, the same year Lincoln freed the slaves, Bonaparte's nephew, the Emperor Napoleon the III freed the artists in Paris from the tyranny of the Academy Francais. After receiving many complaints from both the artists and the public that the official French Salon had refused to exhibit paintings that did not conform to Academy rules of acceptable art, Napoleon went down to take a look for himself. That's when he saw for the first time the early paintings of Renoir, Degas, Pissaro, Cezanne and Manet.

Guess what? That's when this would-be conqueror of all Europe succeeded instead in becoming the liberator of French art. His verdict: in SDS's famous phrase from the 1960's he declared, Let the people decide. 

He liked what he saw, and determined on his own initiative that these paintings which had been refused by the one recognized arbiter of good painting-at that time the only way to get one's work before the general public-were every bit as good as the works which they had accepted. He forthwith invited these artists to exhibit their work at an exhibit he dubbed, "The Salon des Refuses," or the Salon of the Rejected.

Thus through his personal support of the new movement in French Art did the group of paintings which would soon be known as the Impressionists begin to find their audience-outside of the mainstream.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1963 and the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in New York. In the same city as Tin Pan Alley, where the arbiters of musical taste held the same kind of stranglehold on what could be recorded as the French Salon had had on what could be exhibited, clubs like Gerdes Folk City and the Bottom Line in New York City, and The Ash Grove in Los Angeles became the Salon des Refuses of their time, providing the new movement in music a path toward popular success. Instead of Renoir, Degas, Pissaro and Manet, think Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, Van Ronk and in L.A., Ry Cooder-they too were refused by the official custodians of not only mainstrea popular music, but sometimes even the guardians of what was acceptable folk music.

Dylan was rejected by both Folkways and Vanguard Records before the hallowed producer John Hammond signed him for Columbia Records. Back then he was known in house as "Hammond's Folly." The rough-hewn white blues singer with the bark still on his voice was deemed "too visceral" by Maynard Solomon of Vanguard, who couldn't see putting a voice that had been described as "a cat being dragged across a barbed-wire fence" on the same label with Joan Baez.

And Sam Phillips of Sun Records couldn't see turning down $35,000 for Elvis Presley's contract, which he promptly sold to RCA Victor. In the world of music these judgments rank right up there (or down there) with the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

And in the world of art they rank right up there with those French Academy art critics rejecting Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne for a bunch of paint-by-the-numbers academicians whose work was little known nor long remembered.

Today those rejected early works of French Impressionism are hanging in the Louvre, Elvis is the King, Dylan is the Crown Prince, and Babe Ruth is the man who saved baseball. Conclusion: don't trust the experts.

The Salon des Refuses may make for an inspirational story today, with a hundred and forty years of hindsight for perspective, but in its own time it was notorious enough to cause riots in the streets of Paris. They were not rioting on behalf of liberte, egalite and fraternite, nor on behalf of the damned de la terre-from the opening of The Internationale-later translated by the American Wobblies as "the wretched of the earth." Nor were they protesting on behalf of the right of free expression by France's beleaguered young artist manques.

On the contrary, they were voicing their outrage at one painting in particular by Edouard Manet that had somehow slipped by the censor and wound up being the controversial centerpiece of that historic 1863 exhibition.

You may be familiar with Manet's early foray into Impressionism (a label, by the way, he always rejected) with a painting called Le Dejeuner les Herbes, or Luncheon on the Grass, which became perhaps the most revolutionary painting of all time. It aroused the most violent reactions of any painting in the Salon Des Refuses. It prompted the public to label Manet a madman and Napoleon the Third a fool for having supported him.

They had seen nudes before, but they had been nude gods and goddesses, not a middle-class, fleshy and blithely unconcerned French woman sitting at a picnic with two well-clothed gentlemen seemingly indifferent to her brazenly baring all. The public was anything but indifferent. Manet and his model Victorine Meurent had struck a nerve every bit as telling as Elvis's swivel hips did in the staid and silent 1950's. Just as Ed Sullivan's cameraman could not shoot Elvis below the waist, so did Manet find himself the object of ridicule and scorn.

What Elvis did for the music of the body, what Dylan later did for the music of the mind, Manet had done for the female nude-he brought her literally down to earth. Every radical artist breaks some kind of convention, crosses some kind of boundary, and thus recreates the world their art inhabits. Or as Walt Whitman put it, every great artist must create the audience by which he (or she) would be judged.

We are not surprised to read that this has been done by great visual artists, or great literary artists, but to realize that great folk artists like Woody Guthrie, like Bob Dylan, and great rock artists like Elvis have equally pushed those boundaries, have redrawn the map of the known world-well, that is surprising, and liberating in the fullest sense of that often maligned word. Let the people decide.


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Previous Columns