The Master

His inspired passion made him a favorite in the art world. Now Marcel Salinas is stuck in St. Louis, where hardly anybody knows his name.

Edelman takes his classes to Salinas' apartment for talks that meander through the history and theory of art, liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, humor and answers to whatever questions students may pose. Dana Gray, an art appraiser and president of the St. Louis Gallery Association, lives in the same building as Salinas and says she has tried to convince her contacts at Webster, Washington and St. Louis universities to hire Salinas as a lecturer, but no luck.

"They're not going to get any of this from a book," Gray says. "And nobody here in town or visiting is going to have the same experience that he does. Any known artist of this century, he's somehow touched that person, been affiliated with, had a personal experience, done prints for that person or knew their dealer.

"He's so connected."

Salinas produced or supervised the creation of several Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs.
Salinas produced or supervised the creation of several Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs.
Salinas regularly expounds on art for St. Louis Community College students.
Jennifer Silverberg
Salinas regularly expounds on art for St. Louis Community College students.

Born into wealth in Alexandria, Egypt, before World War I, Salinas ended up penniless in Paris in his forties, his dream of becoming an artist turned into a fight for survival.

His father was a lawyer whose ancestors emigrated from Italy to Egypt in the nineteenth century, when the country went through a period of rapid modernization. His mother was born in Paris. He grew up an only child in Alexandria, where he learned to love opera, symphonies and, of course, painting. There were frequent trips to Europe to escape the heat and humidity of Egyptian summers, which he swears are worse than St. Louis'.

"I fell in love with Madame Butterfly," he recalls. "When she was killing herself, I started screaming. They had to take me out." He was just six years old, and he still sees nothing odd about creating such a row. "Even gangsters cry when they see Madame Butterfly," he says.

Bowing to his parents' expectations, he became a lawyer in his stepfather's firm. But, always, art beckoned, much to his parents' consternation. "Both of them hated for me to paint," he says. "My stepfather was a fantastic man. He loved me, you see, and he had a kind of respect for me. I told him, 'I want to take a chance here.' He said, 'This is very bad. You'll never make a living. It's an illusion. You speak like a child.' I was young, so I didn't care. So I told him at a certain moment, 'I will come less often to the office.' And after that, I went to work more on my art. He didn't like it, but he let me go."

Salinas spent ten years creating works for his first show, a 1946 exhibit in an Alexandria gallery. Four years later, he landed a one-man show in the Galerie Barreiro-Stiebel in Paris, his first brush with the big time. "This was a very important show," he says. "There were eleven articles on my show. I sold 24 paintings." And Salinas soon left Egypt for good.

His move to Paris was made partly to follow his dream, partly to escape an Egypt bound for political and social upheaval. His only formal instruction came when he studied in Paris under André Lhote, a cubist painter whose works hang in museums from the State Hermitage Museum in Russia to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in France to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"If I had stayed in Egypt, I would have done nothing," he says, "and I saw that things were collapsing, could collapse very soon. And I wanted to realize my career. Only Paris could give me the opportunity." His wife didn't feel the same way, and his artistic drive doomed the marriage. "She's a nice person, but she was terribly selfish," he says. "When we married, I wanted to realize my career in Paris. But in Paris, I had not, immediately, enough money to have the same life as in Egypt. She was nice when she was very young, and all of a sudden, only herself." Nor did his second marriage last. "She left me," he says, adding that he was too immersed in his work to have any semblance of a domestic life.

When Egypt switched from a monarchy to a republic in the 1950s, Salinas' family lost everything, including all of his earliest works. Salinas explains that his mother left his paintings in an apartment when she moved to a smaller place, arranging to return to retrieve the works. But when she came back, Salinas says, the new tenant sent her away, saying there were no paintings there. "They were stolen," he says.

By the mid-1950s, Salinas was a starving artist, at one point reduced to painting houses to make ends meet. "Marcel was in France, cut off from all funds," says his friend J. Robert LeShufy, a New York art publisher who has known Salinas since 1970, when his company commissioned the artist to produce lithographs of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. "He had nothing. Here he was, beautiful silk suits, living in Paris and everything else and he didn't have ten francs in his pocket. This really scarred him, this whole business of being without anything and being a refugee and that sort of thing. He's never really gotten over it."

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