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The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) were astutely planned as complementary perspectives on the broad contexts for Gertrude Stein’s life and work. The most important aspect of these affiliated exhibitions is the copious interwoven personal, historical, biographical, and legendary stories of this unique literary icon, opening with the Stein family’s roots in the San Francisco Bay Area before shifting to the more expansive narrative of Gertrude’s life and that of her family, expatriates living in Paris from the first decade of the twentieth century onward. The exhibitions create a somewhat romantic perspective on the ways in which her unique and abstruse writing style was fostered by the artistic milieu in turn of the century Paris, and how Gertrude and her brothers fully availed themselves of the advantages offered by their familial and class background. Yet, significant in this respect is the fact that Gertrude and her brothers Leo and Michael—along with Gertrude and Michael’s respective spouses—were also inherently vanguard enough to become significant early collectors of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and their contemporaries.
One of the primary questions that emerged for this writer was: how could two simultaneous exhibitions centered on Gertrude Stein be warranted at adjacent museums? While there were naturally shared points of intersection in the relationships between Gertrude, her family, and the key artists with whom she formed close relationships, the thematic thrust of the two exhibitions created significantly different narratives. Whereas the CJM exhibition conjures a multifaceted portrait of Gertrude the writer, lesbian, artist’s model, celebrity, and iconic creative influence, the SFMOMA show illuminates the Steins as connoisseurs, and how and why their artistic tastes changed over time. This latter focus allowed SFMOMA to showcase its direct connection to the Stein family through key works it acquired, in particular by Matisse and Picasso, artists who were central to Gertrude’s and the Stein’s early years in Paris. The family’s nascent collecting practices are exemplified by Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905, now in the collection of SFMOMA)—painted with the then-revolutionary Fauve palette that caused a scandal at the 1905 Salon d’Automne—which the Steins saw and purchased from that exhibition. In fact, it was that painting, along with Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne with a Fan (1878–88), which (as Gertrude wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)), “was an important purchase because in looking and looking at this picture Gertrude Stein wrote Three Lives.” The relationship between the Stein and Matisse families is of such significance that one of the fourteen galleries that comprises The Steins Collect is devoted to their personal and creative relationships. Among the remarkable paintings in this space is Matisse’s Blue Nude: Souvenir of Biskra (1907), which Leo purchased from the 1907 Salon des Independants; and La Coiffure (1907), which Michael and Sarah Stein acquired. Both paintings were loaned to the 1913 Armory Show in New York.
The family collected a number of other promising artists of the time—among them Marie Laurencin, Francis Picabia, André Masson, and Juan Gris—but the most important influence on Gertrude’s development as a collector and patron of the arts was her friendship with Picasso. The complex bonds among Picasso, Gertrude, and Leo are drawn out near the beginning of the exhibition with some of the abundant archival materials including Picasso’s delightful drawing Une très belle danse barbare (1904), included with a 1905 letter he wrote to Leo in response to an invitation to lunch. Of particular significance is Picasso’s iconic 1905–06 portrait of Gertrude—for which she allegedly sat eighty or ninety times—which was decisive in the evolution of Picasso’s formal painting vocabulary, and anticipated Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) and Cubism. In her chapter for the comprehensive exhibition catalogue, Cécile Debray discusses how those studio sessions were mutually influential, and further contributed to the development of Gertrude’s writing style as she was working on part of her seminal book of stories Three Lives. Gertrude’s personal notebooks during 1908–11 reveal a stylistic dialogue with Picasso’s work, evident in her word portraits of artists (which included Matisse, Picasso, Gris, and others) that were first published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work journal. Gertrude and Leo purchased one of Picasso’s 1907 notebooks containing a number of head and nude figure studies, which reveal his attempts to resolve African, Iberian, and Oceanic art. Several of these are on view in a gallery devoted to Picasso and the birth of Cubism, including SFMOMA’s expressive Head in Three-Quarter View (1907), which later belonged to Michael and Sarah and is authoritatively hung in proximity to some of the Stein’s furniture.
The overarching narrative of The Steins Collect is largely achieved through huge photo blowups of interiors of the Stein’s homes in Paris—augmented by an entire gallery devoted to Sarah and Michael’s Le Corbusier-designed villa Stein-de-Monzie, outside of Paris—which allows the original domestic settings for the collection to play a primary role. This focus is necessarily contingent on the fact that the Stein’s homes were public locales for their respective salons and dinner parties, as well as private living and work spaces. Some of these photographs are by accomplished photographers—especially Man Ray and Cecil Beaton—which creates a huge public persona for the Stein’s intimate dominion, especially of Gertrude and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas (who is marginally visible in The Steins Collect). However, while the primacy of these domestic spaces in the SFMOMA show provides context for the artists and their work that populated the Stein’s lives, the images are largely devoid of people, which strips them of the lively personalities that inhabited the spaces and amassed those remarkable collections.
By contrast, these domestic settings are brought to life in Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which is pointedly focused on Gertrude’s repeated insistence that “eyes were more important than ears” (wall text from Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), and the fact that as much as she loved language, she loved looking. To epitomize this, the entryway to the exhibition features homey film footage of Gertrude hoeing in her garden at her Biligninresidence, pausing for a moment to shake hands with her pet poodle, Basket. The intimacy implied by the title to the exhibition, augmented by the simple filmed activity that introduces the exhibition, is quite intentional, strongly suggesting that it is the personal that sheds light on Stein’s public persona and accompanying narratives, rather than the other way around.
For Seeing Gertrude Stein, co-curators Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer focused on the “visual” Stein—represented by and embodied in the objects and activities that were central to Gertrude’s and Alice’s lives. This is an intriguing choice, as it suggests expanded ways to reconsider the narratives that dominate an understanding of Gertrude’s work and character, pointing to the contradictions that are inherent in them. As means to do this, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue underscore Gertrude and Alice’s “marriage” as captured in the titular five stories about “the visual Stein,” as Corn describes it “teased out from objects” (5). These thematic areas—which include Picturing Gertrude, Domestic Stein, The Art of Friendship, Celebrity Stein, and Legacies—enhance the viewer’s awareness of the deeply unconventional world Gertrude and Alice created: their hospitality, home décor, pets, food, and mode of dress (largely designed by Alice); and Gertrude’s intense personal and artistic relationships, including her collaborations after World War I with a circle of international artists who were young, male, and gay. The show crescendos to a first summit in “Celebrity Stein,” which recounts the story of Gertrude’s celebratory return to the United States in 1934–35 with Alice, and ends with a meaningful, albeit somewhat magnified, look at her literary influences. During her later years, Gertrude’s collecting taste and judgment changed fairly radically, and became more conservative, in part reflecting the less vanguard artists whom she affiliated with after 1925, as she awaited a young artist who would replace the inspirational and collaborative role Picasso had served. The artistic highlight of Gertrude’s later years was her collaborations with Virgil Thompson. Most notable was their partnership on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934)—a highlight of the CJM exhibition—performed on Broadway with African American singers.
The final section of Seeing Gertrude Stein, which includes a potpourri of works by more and less well-known contemporary artists, is somewhat shaky, as the selection of portraits of Gertrude ranges from iconic images by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to more kitschy portraits of Gertrude and Alice by Tom Hachtman, along with highly conceptual interpretations such as Terri Berlier’s complex sound piece, Tuning Fork #4 (World Tuning) (2004).
One of the most contentious and complicating aspects of Gertrude and Alice’s life story was the fact that they lived behind enemy lines from 1942–1944, in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. How she and Alice accomplished this—as Jewish female homosexuals, susceptible to persecution by the Vichy government and Nazis—was largely due to her unsavory ties to Bernard Fay, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the Occupation. Fay—also a homosexual, who had a deep affection for Stein and a long history of working jointly with her on translations and intellectual projects—was influential in protecting Stein and her collection. The CJM exhibition and catalogue reveal the curious fact that Gertrude and Alice decided to stay in their home in Bilignin, France, “because it would be ‘uncomfortable’ to leave” (catalogue page 253); yet after a 1941 photo-essay published in Vogue by photographer Thérèse Bonney, an American expatriate living in France, Stein disappeared from the news from 1942–1944. Further complicating this history was Stein and Toklas’s trip to Germany during the summer of 1945, where Stein entertained U.S. troops; her behaviors and writings about the excitement she details in “Off We All Went to See Germany” (Life, August 6, 1945) further confuse an exact understanding of her real feelings about the reality of the Nazi occupation.
A significant point addressed in this show is that while Stein’s writing influenced the evolution of twentieth-century poetry—especially the New York School and Beat poetry, as well as various contemporary poets—a majority of people know of Gertrude Stein yet have not read her work. While this is largely due to the esoteric nature of Gertrude’s literary style, it also explains why her influence has been as much about her fame and her remarkably prolific output as about her writing. This longstanding sentiment is underscored by a statement that introduces the “Celebrity Stein” section of the show: “Everyone talks about Ms. Stein, and few read her, some attempt with noble futility to understand her and none, alas, with the minor exception of Gertrude Stein, do” (Boston Evening Transcript [December 1934]). However, this outlook also reinforces the dualities that were central to Stein’s creative output as well as her life, succinctly stated in one of the CJM’s wall statements:
Stein has always evoked passionate responses. She paraded, even celebrated, her contradictions. Her literary innovations were radical, but her political beliefs conservative; she was a lesbian who preferred the intellectual company of men. She was born and raised a Jew but did not give Judaism a central place in her public identity. A self-acclaimed genius, she preferred talking to the man in the street rather than those in power. She was an expatriate who wanted to be famous in her home country. She was beloved but also feared and disliked. . . . [She was a] complex and fascinating woman.
Writer, Curator, Independent Scholar