Over the past two centuries, Paris has opened its arms to countless American artists, writers, and thinkers. As an American envoy to France, Thomas Jefferson came to revere the country's culture even as he despised its monarchy and aristocracy, and liberally imported French architectural ideas to America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists moved to Paris to study with the French masters and indulge their own impulses. Between the First and Second World Wars, American writers spent long hours in Paris' cafes, using them as places to write when empty -- when full, places to write about. During the same period, black musicians and writers found respite from America's stifling racism in France, working Paris' clubs and achieving success unfound in the States.
Humanities West, with France's Consul General and Alliance Française, presents "Postcards From Paris: Americans in the City of Light" over the weekend. Friday night's performance includes introductory remarks on "American Fascination With the City of Light" from City College's Charles Fracchia, then chanteuse Raquel Bitton revisits 1920s French cabaret and the songbooks of the legendary Edith Piaf.
Saturday's daylong program includes a series of lectures: "Jefferson and Paris" with Columbia University's Stanley Mellon; UC Santa Cruz historian Tyler Stovall speaking on "Black Music, White Nights: African-American Performance in Interwar Paris"; and Dr. Derrick R. Cartwright from France's Musée d'Art Américain Gíverny giving the lecture "A Large and Glorious Place: American Artists in France, 1830-1930." The program concludes with two musical performances: local jazz pianist Kito Gamble, followed by the San Francisco Chamber Singers' "Gertrude, Virgil, and the Four Saints: From Vision to Verity," a literary-musical collaborative performance based on correspondence between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson as they developed the opera Four Saints in Three Acts.
"Postcards From Paris" takes place Friday from 8 to 10:15 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is $25-50; call 392-4400.