Gertrude Stein moved to Paris in 1903. From then on, till her death in 1946, she held court in her Paris home with artists and writers, playwrights and actors, singers and dancers. Part of this group, was a french clown by the name of Gadet. He first appears as part of Stein’s group in letters she sends to her family in the US, speaking about him as the quintessential french clown – white painted face, gloves, etc. It is however unclear exactly when he became part of her circle. He is also mentioned much later as being the previous owner of a Picasso painting sold at auction, and his ownership is dated as 1912 – so we can assume he was part of the group from at least this date.
He appears to have been close friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it was through a story told by Fitzgerald that this first image became associated with the ‘salon’. Competition among those in the salon was common, and success was important to them all. A competition was organised as to whom could write the most emotive short play or story.
It is said that it is from this competition that Hemingway got the idea, and continued to test himself, working on stories in as few words as possible – subsequently writing the famous short story in 6 words – ‘For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn’.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story about a man dealing with his sick cat, which Ezra Pound read aloud at one of their Saturday soirees. This short story was adapted and submitted to a number of magazine publishers.
Samuel Beckett, who was famous for the brevity of his works as it was, outdid himself with a piece he created for this competition. He wrote a piece he claimed dealt with death, and the moments before death. He created a dedicated juggling piece for Gadet to perform at the salon. It is based on one of Gadet’s characters – ‘The Plague Doctor’, and his wearing of the plague mask and its protection from ‘bad air’.
Beckett won the competition, with the emotive piece – Gadet just breathing slowly into his mask, and finally the balls falling to the ground – and the work was about 30/35 seconds long.
Beckett subsequently rewrote the piece, calling it simply ‘Breath’ and it was used in the Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta! The altered version dealt instead with the first 35 seconds of life – the birth-cry.
Though not confirmed, it is then believed that Brassai created this image. Capturing the performance of Gadet and Becketts work.- the exposure shows the full 30 seconds of the performance – in one full shot. This image was found in 1947 as part of Gertrude Stein’s belongings. Though it is not certain that Brassai took this image (the negative has not been found, nor is his work signed etc), it is assumed to be him, as it was found among other pieces confirmed to be his – including the famous photograph of Bonnard painting Gadet is his studio, as part of Brassai’s famous artists studio series.