When Stein stopped in the Bay Area on her American lecture tour, in 1935, the San Francisco Examiner greeted the return of the expatriate, "Gertrude Stein Arrives Without a Single Comma."
The newspaper headline serves as a humorous motto for the show, reminding us that in her childhood and youth, Stein once lived in the area, and it sets the tone in a playful, creative way for the first-ever attempt at portraying America's most famous woman author in a museum exhibition. The immediate impression of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is very much like Stein herself: "peaceful and exciting," sumptuous, good-humored, brainy and eccentric, sophisticated and unpretentious all at the same time.
Already in the entryway you hear Stein's melodious voice and upper-class accent, her self-assured "rap" as she reads from her work. You walk in along a wall with one of her irrepressible one-liners, "When this you see remember me."
At the door Stein's contemporary relevance is captured in a large biographical silk print canvas by Deborah Kass, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Women # 3." Kass plays on Andy Warhol's 1963 "pictobiography" of artist Robert Rauschenberg, titled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." This art work is both part of "Story 1: Picturing Gertrude Stein," and part of "Story 5: Legacies," which explores Stein's influence on modern and post-modern artists. Standing guard at the entrance, it sets the tone in a non-didactic way, inciting visitors to reflect on Stein's fame, the politics of gender, and the long-lasting impact of the language revolutionary who defied every stereotype – in literature as well as in her early-on established lesbian lifestyle.
The rooms are instantly inviting, spacious and colorful. The eye catches the big Buddha-like sculpture of Stein by Jo Davidson (permanently enthroned in Manhattan, in front of the Public Library). A break in the wall behind it opens onto the blue-and white pigeon wall-paper that used to cover a whole room in Gertrude and Alice's second Paris apartment, on 5, Rue Christine, and here merrily covers a whole museum wall. A small screen nearby shows Stein, wearing owlish glasses, reciting her poem,
"Pigeons on the grass alas."
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass Pigeons large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass."
Then she looks at the camera with an ambiguous half-grin and states, "Now that's exactly what I saw in the garden pigeons were on the grass." The film starts again, with Stein laughing and rubbing her head in her particular way as if delighted and a bit puzzled by everything and anything, her own genius included.
Another whole wall is covered with an oversized, pleased-looking Stein presenting her brand-new evening suit tailored by fashion designer Pierre Balmain in heavy velvet, with a jaunty little cap and tussle to go with it. The palpable presence of her quixotic personality is rounded out by two of her beautiful, elaborately embroidered vests, both perhaps made by Alice. They are part of "Story 2: Domestic Stein" ("Becoming Gertrude and Alice").
In the cornucopia of photographs, original art work, posters and of course books, there is enough of the familiar (the art-covered studio walls at 27 Rue de Fleurus, the portraits of Stein by famous photographers and artists, the Ford, the dogs and the country house) to set a solid base for the intention of the show to present some of Stein's less familiar faces.
"Everyone has their own narrative on who is Gertrude Stein," the two curators of the show, scholars Wanda Corn and Tirza Latimer, explained in the opening lecture. Instead of the well-known Stein, the "patron collector, the Stein of the Lost Generation, or the difficult-to-read Stein," they wanted to present the "unknown Stein" as well as the "visual Stein" – the writer who inhabited a visual world and claimed that for writing, eyes "were more important than ears." (A perfectly paradoxical claim, I would argue, from an author who was a listener par excellence and loved repeating best of all, as she explained in her Lectures in America: "I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you coud hear it rise and fall and tell all that that there was inside them…")
Seeing Gertrude : Five Stories focuses on Stein's life after the First World War, when Stein could no longer afford to buy Picasso or Matisse and instead collected affordable artists from all walks of life who were young, gay, and admiring. (This is part of "Story 3: The Art of Friendship"). The curators did not want to present Stein as the lonesome genius, but as a collaborator with other artists, who became her "second family." None of these painters, so-called "Neoromantics" like Christian Bérard, Pavel Tchelitchew, Marsden Hartley or Kristians Tonny, were of great consequence. Her favorite among them, Sir Francis Rose, was outright mediocre. That she stubbornly collected him elicited headshakes and stony silence at best from her old friend Picasso; but Rose seems to have pleased Gertrude and Alice's with whimsical sketches of their home life and perhaps amused them with his scandalous sexcapades. This later lack of judgment and taste in her art collection is strange and oddly touching, bringing the "emperial" Stein a little closer to the rest of us mortals.
The exhibition succeeds in making Stein "visual." There is an abundance of multimedia: home movie footage and a two-hour slide show of photographic images "Story 1: Picturing Gertrude Stein," showing what Stein looked like in her various bohemian and post-bohemian, monk- and dyke-style outfits. As the author of the photobiography Gertrude Stein: In Word and Pictures (Algonquin) I can gaily report that most of the photos I found appear in the show; but there are also a number of photos that made me think: If only I had known about this one! If only it were also in my book! Among them is the fashion shoot of Stein looking up at a ravishing model of Pierre Balmain in an evening outfit. Another one, perhaps the most erotic of all the snapshots taken of Gertrude and Alice together, shows the two of them at the time of their honeymoon somewhere in Italy, dressed in identical batik dresses, involved in a very private conversation that makes them smile and glow with delight.
There are marvelous audio samples of Stein reading from her work, her word portraits of Picasso and Matisse, etc., and there are many filmed excerpts from her collaborations – her two operas and one ballet – in both historical and modern versions. A long excerpt from the 1934 world premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts (music by Virgil Thomas, choreography by Frederick Ashton) shows the all-black cast doing "Pigeons on the grass" as a negro spiritual, the men's hands hovering and feeding the little birds. The dancing reminded me distinctly of Mark Morris at his earthy, droll best, with even some cross-dressing antics that could have been out of his Nutcracker parody, The Hard Nut. Indeed, a photograph of the production evokes illicit wonders: a black Saint Teresa full of grace sitting on a throne, a white dove on her hand; two mostly naked showgirls next to her merrily cuddling with each other; a nun in a heavy habit bending over to take a photograph, the camera hung with black lace.
Next to this intriguing original, the excerpt from Mark Morris' own ballet version of the opera appears as a lame duck, filled with neo-classical fluff, earnestly devoid of irony. It confirmed my impression, when I saw the piece at Cal Performances, in 2005, that Morris took Stein way too seriously. The best idea, I thought, was the white curtain by Maira Kalman, filled with words from Stein's libretto.
The last part of the show, "Story 5: Legacies", is small but saftig. The art work prickles with invention and political zest. Andy Warhol's color screen print "Gertrude Stein" from his 1980 series "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century" used the Vichy passport photo that Stein needed in 1940 when she returned from the country to Paris in order to save her Picasso portrait and other valuables in her apartment from the Germans. Glenn Ligon's neon tubing "Warm Broad Glow" lights up a the words "negro sunshine," part of the phrase: "the warm broad glow of negro sunshine" from Stein's early novella "Melanctha" (in Three Lives) that was once considered the first portrait of black people written by a white author. Terrie Berlier's mixed media wall sculpture "Human Tuning Fork # 4" from 2004, made of 240 telephone speakers wired together, mutters and sputters Stein's sybilline "anyone having been that one is the one that one is" in endless distortions in the languages of the countries involved in World War II.
A striking aspect is the humorous approach by many artists chosen for the show. Caricatures like David Levine take on both Gertrude and Alice; cartoonist Tom Hachtman stands out with his feminist "schizographic" double portrait "Gertrude Steinem" that merges Picasso's portrait of Stein with Gloria Steinem's aviator glasses, long hair and the cigarette that Stein, too, used to smoke. Humor takes the "literary Einstein of this century" (as Stein coined herself) down from her throne and makes her accessible and fun. In the seventies, pop artist Red Grooms puts her in a delightful pop-up chair. But even much earlier, especially during her American Lecture Tour, Stein is met by tender mocking in the American press, from the New Yorker to Vanity Fair. The most hilarious parody, in Vanity Fair, pits air-head Gracie Allen (a character from a popular radio show) against Stein in Miguel Covarrubias' caricature "Impossible Interview: Gracie Allen vs. Gertrude Stein:
"Gertrude: "Is words. Is a style. Is a word is a style is words is not a style. Is buttons. Gracie (merrily): Aaaah-ah-aah, now, Gertie, I bet you say that to all the boys. Gertrude: Buttons is unbottoned. Trude is untrude. Stein is unstein. Gracie: Oh Gertie, you say the funniest things. I wish I could think of funny things to say like that. Gertrude: Is a word is two words is three words is prose. Gracie: It's wonderful, the things you say. George read them to me in that book by Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude: I wrote that book. I am Toklas. Gracie: So am I, particularly on the soles of my feet. (…)"
At the same time that America celebrates her, in her "hometown" Paris, many of her old friends declare war against Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, because they don't like the way they are portrayed in the hugely successful book.
"Stein has always evoked passionate responses," the exhibition tells us. "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. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories explores this complex and fascinating woman."
Not all of these contradictory facets are visible or easily detectable in the exhibition. One story – the Jewish story –- seems to be mostly missing, although a little diorama in the childhood section points out that all the Stein children went to Sabbath School at Oakland's first synagogue that later became Temple Sinai. The sticky question of how Gertrude and Alice –Americans, Jews, and lesbians, survived in occupied France is only broached by a short text about their probable protector in the Vichy regime, who was an intimate friend, and the fact that in 1944, America celebrated the liberation of their "Gertie" without any mention of her Jewishness.
We will have to wait for the catalogue-book, to be published any day by UC Press, to find out more.
In the meantime, next door to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a monumental art exhibition, The Steins Collect: Picasso, Matisse and the Parisian Avant-Garde is opening at SFMOMA with an eight-pound catalogue. The "Summer of Stein," as everyone calls it, has begun, promising lectures, podium discussions, university classes, performances as well as a brand-new production of Four Saints in Three Acts.
Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories will present some new treasures when it moves on to the National Portrait Gallery in DC, in September. There will be Francis Picabia's striking portrait of Stein with few clothes on, for example. And there will be an unknown painting by a very famous painter, but that's still hush-hush. With Gertrude Stein, there is always another surprise in store.
(For ongoing information, see my blog quotinggertrudestein.com)
Cover Photo - Deborah Kass: Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, 1994-95