Welcome to the first Live event of Salon Without Boundaries. This has been a project long in its incubation, and thus we are especially delighted that the ship should set sail at long last on no less auspicious a date than the 213th birthday for the Salon patron, Fanny Hensel.
Hensel will not be an unfamiliar figure to many of you, but it is worth reminding ourselves of her wide sphere of creative output, from pianist to chorister, conductor, composer, writer, and of course salonière (although she herself never would have termed herself one). And in the spirit of the salon, we must mention some of the other roles she filled so graciously and skillfully – daughter, sister, mother, wife, social activist, organizer, educator, enabler and lynchpin. All of these roles, every single one, inflected the creative voice we hear from her, and it is the unique combination she offers that has led not only to my long-standing awe and admiration of this - to me - towering figure, but also to our decision to nominate her as Salon Patron - although it must be admitted that this is without her express permission.
Hensel is known in part for the musical gatherings she organized fortnightly at her home at 3 Leipziger Strasse - gatherings in which the musicians of the day played to an audience of approximately 200 invitees, which included other musicians, artists, scientists, philosophers, writers, and thinkers, both known and unknown. Invitations were sought after, the successful ones a source of much envy throughout Berlin. Hensel’s musicales followed a slightly different pattern from other Berlin salons, in that the core event concentrated solely on musical performance; the cross-fertilization of other idioms andother idea-centres comes from the relationship of the musicale to its participants’ involvement in a wider community that grew out of their coming together here - the “here and now of the salon conversation being continued through the distance of space and time”, as Petra Wilhelmy-Dollinger puts it in her wonderful book on Berlin salons. This included such events as Humboldt’s lecture to both men and women at the Berlin Sing-Akademie, art exhibitions, salons run by other women, all the way through to the casual get-togethers and passing discussions, both in person and written, that created the woven cloth in which more formalised events were nestled. It is clear from the writings of the time just how exciting these connections were, and how important they were for the growth of both society and culture at that time. What would our artistic and scientific heritage look like if, for example, the archeologist Karl Lepsius and mathematician Karl Jacobi had not sat in a room together, listening to Hensel playing Beethoven, while beside them, the artist Wilhelm Hensel sketched the feminist writer Hedwig Dohm?
Of course, the other foundational pillar of the salon is that this was the sphere of women. It was women who organised them, ran them, invited people and then kept the conversation alive, before, during and after the event itself. And for many, it was the further education that was denied them in mainstream education – salons have often been referred to as ‘women’s universities’. The desperate desire of women for knowledge and skills cannot be underestimated; as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, women writers such as Christine de Pizan, Marie de Gournay and Jane Anger were pouring their terrible anger and despair onto the page, demanding the same educational rights as men. In the nineteenth-century, the deep rift between opportunities for men and for women of course continued. The salon was a way of navigating this, and taking some control.
The other most important facet of the salon was its ability to allow room for the recognition of women’s stories and expression. The half of humanity that has culturally inhabited the role of the silent symbol, gains its own voice in the Salon, and speaks for itself, rather than through an observer. If I may be personal for a moment: I inhabit many of the same roles as Hensel, both creatively and in wider life. I am a pianist, a teacher, a writer, a daughter, sister, wife. I am mother to a prematurely-born son. And while I am deeply, deeply grateful for the wonderful cultural treasure from the men who make up most of the current Western canon, I am also passionate in two beliefs. One is that music speaks of the everyday, and that this does not make it any less sublime and universal in its utterance. The other is that there is a whole wealth of human experiences – including my experience – that is not spoken about in the creations of the current mainstream canon, especially from the inside out. Hensel’s song Warum sind den die Rosen so blass? says something about child loss no man ever can; her understanding of the cycle of time in her piano work Das Jahris, to me, clearly born of her female experience.
It is a sense of illumination and of continuous communication that we want to capture in this salon, through the highlighting of women’s creative practice, not just in the arts, but across all fields. Creatively and artistically, we want the Salon to help change gendered cultural norms and enable us as artists to envisage ourselves not on the margins, but at the centre of a vibrant, culturally relevant and socially empowering landscape shaped by the creativity of our own gender. The discussion starts tonight: do join in with the explorations and dialogue, both here and upstairs, where there are some cards you might like to use to stimulate conversation. Please also come and be part of theongoing community at salonwtihoutboundaries.com. we look forward to what comes in the future.