“Paris as a magnet: female expatriates and the Left Bank 1900-1940” is not the name of a forthcoming exhibition but it is the title I fancy for a multidisciplinary pageant involving all the municipal as well as French national museums and cultural centers to take place over several months across the city. It would honor the wealth of remarkable female artists who chose this place as the receptacle of their creative ambitions, using it to explore and express what was contained in their minds. The city has been generous over the years with these uncommon individuals mounting exhibitions and recalling their trail-blazing trajectories. The Grand Palais is honoring these days The Stein family and their intense involvement with the avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the early part of the XX century. The Saint-Laurent Pierre Bergé Foundation is showing the work of the photographer Gisele Freund, author of notable portraits of literary figures.
Behind the names that marked a period and left a deep imprint in both the arts and the collective imagination, there shimmers another band of pioneers, ardorous and vital, to whom posterity has not allocated a front seat in the pantheon but who are a feverish part of that ecosystem of free-spirits and bohemians. One such is Natalie Clifford Barney, an American heiress who had more than one thing in common with a member of the Stein family, Gertrude, no doubt the best known of them. Both sapphic writers, they also each held famous weekly salons. Natalie’s was frequented by all the famed and fashonable elites, individuals such as André Gide, Marcel Proust, T.S. Elliot, Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, Adrienne Monnier and Nancy Cunard as well as “ladies with high collars and monocles” as Sylvia Beach would describe some of them. Natalie wrote and loved incessantly. She was also gifted with wealth and health to no end and her long life (she died in 1972 at the age of 96) afforded her the ability to associate with a high number of legendary characters, an astonishing gotha of talents, artistic and intellectual.
It seems the work of destiny the fact that she met Oscar Wilde on one of his trips to the United States when she was still a young girl and she ended up not only having a rare affair with Sir Alfred Douglas, the passion and downfall of Wilde, but also becoming an epigrammatist like the famous Englishman who accidentally crossed her life.
She was also fortunate to have found an original abode in number 20, rue Jacob in the heart of the 6th arrondissement, tucked away from the street and at the back of an enchanting garden. Next to her maisonette stood a doric tempietto of unknown origins that she renamed le Temple de l’Amitié, the Temple of Friendship. It still stands, as in the times of Natalie hidden to prying eyes but keeping, in spite of certain neglect, the magic that so beguiled all the visitors to her salon.
There cannot possibly be many lives as romanticized as the life of Natalie, viewed at least from our contemporary perspective. She stands according to Shari Benstock, the author of a book on women on the Left Bank 1900-1940, as the “type” for the expatriate female Modernist: intellectual, sexually independent and financially secured. There could not be a better place for such an individul than the Paris of the time.