Portraits of Gertrude & Leo Stein
“Lying in a conundrum, lying so makes the springs restless, lying so is a reduction, not lying so is arrangeable.” from Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein.
The four seasons of art made the Steiny Road Poet think of Japanese drawings with depictions of nature especially in spring and fall but also in summer and winter. In 1895, Gertrude Stein’s brother Leo at age 23 and their cousin Fred Stein made a world tour and stopped for several months in Japan. Leo was fond of Japanese prints and had some in his early collection before he convinced his sister to invest with him in a modern art collection. One of those prints was a depiction of flowers that seemed to be roses. His interest in things Japanese probably influenced such mysterious lines in Gertrude’s “Objects” section of Tender Buttons as:
“There can be breakages in Japanese.” from “Glazed Glitter.”
“No cup is broken in more places and mended, that is to say a plate is broken and mending does do that it shows that culture is Japanese.” from “Careless Water.”
Shunga, or spring pictures, are Japanese prints that are pornographic. Steiny has not discovered any evidence that Leo collected prints that explicitly depict men and women engaged in the sexual act. However, like American and English military men of the late 1800’s (think of the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly or the French novel Madame Chrysanthème), Leo bought a paper-certified-with-ceremony marriage to a young Japanese woman in Kyoto. According to Brenda Wineapple in Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, he and Fred, along with their relatively new friend Hutchins Hapgood, rented a house and furniture, hired an interpreter, rickshaw driver, and a cook. Then each of them married a young Japanese woman. The wives, serving as diversions while they rested from demands of their exhausting worldwide travels, were abandoned after three months.
Although Leo and his companions considered this situation a curiosity of oriental culture (as opposed to an act of exploitation), engaging prostitutes for sex was how Leo, for years to come, handled his appetite for sex. Steiny brings this up because Gertrude, who had her own issues with sex, based much of her early work on trying to work out questions of sexuality. Q.E.D., her first novel, which went unpublished until after her death, explores a sex triangle between three women. Gertrude wrote this novel as a way of trying to work out a failed affair with a woman named May Bookstaver.
Because sister and brother shared intimate details of their lives with each other, they each had a fairly strong understanding of the other’s proclivities and weaknesses. At the period of time Gertrude was writing Tender Buttons, a very complicated mix of love poem, sexual innuendo, and literary experimentation, she was solidifying her marriage with Alice Toklas and Leo was toying with the idea of making Nina of Montparnasse a life partner. Leo berated Gertrude for her lesbian relationship and the shame it would bring on her from the family. Gertrude scolded Leo for pursuing a relationship with an artist’s model who had no education or class status equal to theirs not to mention her numerous sexual relationships with other men.
The ebb and flow of human sexuality is like the four seasons. It begins with a flowering spring when seeds of love are sown. It progresses to the heat of summer when sexual passion intensifies. With autumn comes the fruits of this lovemaking and in winter the passion cools but the patterns are set for the duration of life. Leo and Nina faded into the background with their successful marriage that ended only at his death in 1947.For Gertrude and Alice, their love affair stands as a model of lesbian love as celebrated in such works by Gertrude as Tender Buttons and Stanzas in Meditation.
Photos of Gertrude/Alice, Leo Stein, Nina Stein
courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library