04 September 2011

Gertrude Stein is cooler than you will ever be

Her very close friend Marion Walker pleaded with her [to complete her medical degree at Johns Hopkins], she said, but Gertrude Gertrude remember the cause of women, and Gertrude Stein said, you don’t know what it is to be bored.
– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Consider the creation of Gertrude Stein, that insouciant and magnificent monument of Modernism, that icon of lesbian swank (back when Paris was the dream capital of the Amazons: Natalie Barney’s salon! The Princess de Polignac and her musical evenings!), back when Paris was the shining scene for advanced American artists, Stein the permanent poet composing and composing and always so much being what she was, sitting at her desk among the famous paintings she had bought when no one had heard of her friends Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

That collection has been reunited this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and will shortly travel on to New York and Paris. I’ve been making lunch-hour visits to the show, once (or twice) a week since it opened. I’ve always had a Gertrude Stein thing.

I started reading her (3 Lives, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, other things then available in random paperbacks) when I was probably 12 or so. My favorite painting at SFMOMA has always been the Matisse Femme au Chapeau from the Stein collection. I was thrilled when I managed to find an unabridged copy of The Making of Americans (back before there was an Internet to provide these things more easily) and I even read the entire thing during a gray January in Boston, propped in bed recovering from eye surgery.

On my one trip to Paris many years ago I made a point of seeking out 27 rue de Fleurus (as if I were one of the American doughboys and then later GIs who dropped in on Gertrude and Alice), even though it is not open to the public. There was a plaque on the wall, which was enough for me. I spent a sunny autumn afternoon at Pere Lachaise cemetery, about an hour of which was devoted to looking for the grave shared by Gertrude and Alice. A caretaker in a beat-up shed in a corner near the entrance (his dim shed contrasting oddly with the elaborate tombs and monuments of the celebrated dead for which the cemetery is renowned) sold poorly mimeographed guides, but I was not interested in finding Jim Morrison like the other Americans there that afternoon, I wanted Stein and Toklas, and their touching joint headstone – Gertrude on the front, Alice on the back – was incorrectly marked on the map.)

Earlier this summer, prompted by this exhibit, I re-read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which is delightfully entertaining and disproves her own quip to Hemingway, quoted therein: “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.” Even her score-settling seems good-natured, particularly when she talks about Hemingway, who by contrast tried to trash her with smarmy, nasty gossip in his own Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast. Well, what else is someone like him going to do after borrowing liberally from her style but turn around and trash her? Gertrude at least knew how to do it without making herself look like the one you'd prefer to avoid.

(the Gertrude Stein, with Alice perched on the handle, from the 1970s)

Then I re-read Everybody’s Autobiography, which is written much more in the usual Stein style, and thereby demonstrates how cleverly Stein captured Toklas’s tone (or, at least, created a tone very different from her own, which has become for us the tone of Alice B Toklas). It’s a bit more disjointed and general than the earlier book, but I guess that’s suitable when you’re writing about Everybody rather than one person, and I think Gertrude knew that the glory days were in the first book.

After the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was published, various writers and painters objected to Gertrude’s version of events (including Matisse, who among other things disliked the characterization of his wife as having a horsey face, and who pointedly said that he thought Mme Sarah Stein was the truly artistically sensitive member of the family – but by then Gertrude was all about Picasso anyway). People get hurt and tossed aside and reality for what it’s worth obscured. The flip side of Gertrude’s persistence and triumph is that lots of nuance and complexity, especially other people’s nuance and complexity, gets smoothed over. It all inevitably gets smoothed over anyway as time passes and memories fade. Gertrude remains imperturbable in our memory of her salon, because she's the one who wrote the most memorably, but there’s sometimes a certain cruel indifference in her attitude (none the less cruel for being comic and probably justified).

Mrs. Van Vechten came. She too was a very tall woman, it would appear that a great many tall ones go to Wellesley, and she too was good-looking. Mrs. Van Vechten told the story of the tragedy of her married life but Gertrude Stein was not particularly interested.
– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

As in Aesop’s fable of the painter and the lion, it’s useful as always to remember who is telling the story, and to consider why. So I followed up The Autobiography of Alice B with Brenda Wineapple’s joint biography, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, which is absorbing and fair-minded and helps remind you that one of Gertrude Stein’s greatest creations was Gertrude Stein. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive of her: what about her wasn’t subject to ridicule and discouragement? Her Jewishness, her sexuality, her intellectual interests, her cultural tastes, her style, even her weight, all were sneered at, in various ways and at various times. Yet she persisted and even triumphed. Good for her.

You could have had a real-life equivalent of reading a disinterested biography by walking from SFMOMA across the street to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which had a fascinating exhibit about Stein and her circle and her times. There are even (appropriately for the librettist of 4 Saints in 3 Acts) relics, including one of Gertrude’s embroidered vests, which was given to Virgil Thomson by Alice (given when Gertrude was gone and Virgil was no longer a threat to Alice but instead a helpful friend and a living link to the glory days long gone with Gertrude). The vest is surprisingly small. Gertrude’s weight was almost always mentioned in descriptions of her, and the CJM exhibit shows how her heft was used to create imperial (yet also motherly) images of her, so the vest size was almost a physical shock. (The exhibit closes September 6, just like the SFMOMA exhibit, but there’s a book available, which I haven’t seen yet.)

I read an interesting biography of Natalie Barney several years ago (Wild Heart by Suzanne Rodriguez). As artistic entertainment for one of her famous gatherings, Barney invited a young American dancer, then unknown, named Isadora Duncan, who brought along an accompanist: a shy young French pianist, then unknown, named Maurice Ravel. This is the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes in historical novels (“Why, ‘tis my old friend Master Shakespeare! Come, Will, and quaff a flagon of ale with us!”) but in reality the celebrated and accomplished must start somewhere in obscurity and service, so of course it was Isadora Duncan accompanied by Maurice Ravel. Paris was like that, we like to think, and it stays that way in American dreams even though now most of it is like any big city in the world, packed with too many people and overpriced bad art and insistent advertising and the same stores and the stench of cars and cigarettes and the noise of sludgy American pop songs.

The lifestyle porn component of the exhibit is discreet but unmissable; scattered throughout there are old black-and-white photos, blown up so that they occupy entire walls, of the various Steins in their various living and dining rooms, sitting casually amid their Matisses and Picassos – things they bought because they liked them and were friends with the artists and could afford this strange and unpopular new work. (And we like to think that we would have bought what Gertrude and Leo bought, or Sarah and Michael, or that at least we would have been welcome guests at their Saturday nights.) There are quite a few paintings of the young Allan Stein, Sarah and Michael’s son, and you grow familiar with his furrowed eyebrows. There are casual friendly notes from Matisse, Picasso, and others, decorated with witty little sketches. On any visit you can hear visitors sighing in envy or wishing for just one of those paintings to hang on their own walls, or just one painter friend (let alone two) who would turn out to be the cataclysmic artistic force of the century.

(Sadly for my imaginary visit to early modern Paris, I have to admit that Gertrude tended to dominate people and to demand fealty, and though it seems she had the character and intelligence to justify her claims, and I think I would have liked her in person, people like that tend to be suspicious or dismissive of me; I think maybe there’s something too withheld about me, and I suspect Gertrude would not have asked me back. But she is gone and I have her books.)

Leo and Gertrude initially lived together at the address they made famous, 27 rue de Fleurus. He helped interest her in art, though later after they grew apart she eliminated his role in her version of the story. They were so very close, intellectually and emotionally, that the refined aesthetes in their circle, pausing in their connoisseur’s appreciation of the newly stylish Italian primitives, could titter nastily over the occasional rumor of incest. He kept on talking and she started writing. She became known for her heft and he went on long fasts, seeking relief from his delicate stomach. She found Alice B Toklas and cubism (in Picasso’s painting and in her writing) and he found Nina of Montparnasse, a street-singer/street-walker who seemed deeply and genuinely attached to him.

You can see the influence of Japanese prints throughout the exhibit, in the flat arrangement of space and the profusion of patterns that clash harmoniously and even in the popularity of scenes of intimate and domestic life. There’s a beautiful Picasso from his blue period, Soup, in which the young mother’s dark chignon and stooped posture as she offers a steaming bowl to her skipping daughter look very Japanese, and indeed Sarah and Michael displayed it with Asian instead of other modern art.

Then the way you showed your interest in advanced art changed from having a taste for Japanese prints to having a taste for African masks. These changes happen subtly and we all have our stopping points. Leo found he could not tolerate cubism, or Gertrude’s writing, both of which he considered childish nonsense. Gertrude and Leo were probably too close to survive together no matter what other paths they took.

There are things that were once considered daringly, even shockingly, modern but are now seen as romantic reminders of a lovely bygone day: La Traviata and Impressionist paintings of train stations are examples of those things. Cubism, setting aside its reputation as important art one should like, still looks intractably modern, determinedly “difficult” in design and almost perversely restricted in palette to drab shades of rust brown, gray, white, and black. This was around the time that Pound pointed out that literature is news that stays news.

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
– Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude is in the exhibit, as it needs to be. The two became friends as she sat for sitting after sitting (I think she said over eighty of them). He was unhappy with the face and painted it out and then she and Leo left to spend the summer in Italy (because people could do things like that then – not have a steady job and buy paintings and live in Paris and then spend the summer in Spain or Italy – was everything just cheaper then?). While she was gone he painted the face from memory. When he was told that Gertrude didn’t look like that he replied, “She will.”

And if Gertrude had not created a Gertrude for us then Picasso’s famous portrait would become our Gertrude (like all those blurred society women of the time who now exist for us only as brushstrokes by John Singer Sargent). In the exhibit there is a small self-portrait by Picasso, done around the same time, hanging right next to the larger portrait of Stein. When I saw them together I realized for the first time that the face he painted for Stein is basically his face.

I thought it was sly of the curators to hang the pictures this way, but in a later room there’s a picture of Stein at her desk, with her portrait behind her, and the same Picasso self-portrait hanging right by it – so perhaps the curators were sly, and perhaps Picasso was sly, and perhaps Gertrude, who in her will mentioned specifically only one painting from the famous collection, this portrait, bequeathing it to the most prestigious American museum, the Metropolitan in New York – perhaps Gertrude was the slyest of all.

A possibly more touching painting is Picasso’s tiny Hommage a Gertrude, probably a gift for her name day (the feast of St Gertrude seems to have shifted to and from several dates in mid-November, so I don't know when exactly he paid this particular homage), with angels trumpeting and holding baskets of rich fruits, done in his distinctive style. It's both baroque and modern, grand and intimate. Gertrude hung it over her bed.

It’s the Matisses that have really dazzled me in this show. I’ve always liked color, so I think I probably would have responded to Matisse before he became beloved. His greens astonish me. Even paintings that I think, at first glance, are dominated by other colors turn out to have greens threaded through them in surprising, vivid ways.

Making weekly lunchtime trips to the exhibit enables me to handle the crowds by darting in and out of convenient openings. There are Cezanne bathers scattered through the show (one of them surprisingly tucked into the gallery devoted otherwise to paintings by Matisse’s pupils). There’s one small one that is almost always free for viewing, hanging right between one big room (with the Femme au chapeau and the portrait of Stein and Picasso's mysterious and authoritative Boy with a Horse and his lovely rose period portrait of a naked Fernande, his mistress at the time) and another big room (with mostly Matisses from Sarah and Michael’s collection, including the vibrant Young Sailor and the sheer mysteriously balanced perfection of Pink Onions).

I found myself tending to linger in front of the same canvases over and over – for instance, the lush and poetic Blue Nude, now in Baltimore and a long-time favorite of mine (previously seen here a few years ago in an exhibit of Matisse’s sculpture; and indeed next to it in this show there is a small Matisse sculpture of a naked woman in the same pose as the Blue Nude, and next to that sculpture is a still life that includes a painted representation of the sculpture).

But the painting that really knocked me out was Matisse's Fontainebleau Forest (Autumn Landscape). I found myself staring at it longer and longer each visit, surprised more and more deeply at how the vivid colors shaped and shaded the view, colors harmoniously contrasting and rhyming and flickering into a sense of unseen but rustling life in the clearing and the trees and the sky over a forest in fall. This painting is currently in a private collection, so I will probably never get to see it again. My memory will have to come to the aid of the small picture in the hefty catalogue.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit this exhibit as often as I did. The collection was dispersed even during the lifetime of its collectors, and by then they knew they had been lucky enough to be in the right time and at the right place and in the right circumstances and that their earlier days would become legend. The colors and shapes on these canvases forced the world to see differently. We take that way of seeing for granted now. So much gets lost and forgotten along the way. The canvases remain, to be looked at, and the books, to be read.

Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.
My long life, my long life.
– Gertrude Stein

The Mother of Us All


Civic Center said...

The last autobiography which is out of print and which you bought for yourself and lent to me, "Wars I Have Seen," may be her best. Still have 50 pages to go out of 180 but the thing is dense, with paragraphs alternating between one short sentence long and then two pages long. It's filled with her usual incantations and bizarrely out-of-left-field insights that may be true or not but it doesn't matter, you look at the world differently after having read them.

Thanks for playing Steinian literary consultant/dramaturg this summer. It's been a pleasure watching you so enjoy yourself and it was obviously infectious.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Stein has a reputation for difficulty and obscurity but she's also quite a quipster ("there is no there there" "one writes for oneself and strangers" etc) and the underlying rhythm of her prose is so powerful it just sucks you in and, as you say, you look at the world differently after reading her.

I honestly am not sure what I'm going to do when this exhibit closes -- it's going to leave a huge gap.

By the way, I should have given you credit for taking the photo of me in front of the Femme au Chapeau (back when it was just hanging on the wall and not a special exhibit, and therefore could be photographed).