Smart art investment—these are the words with which the Steiny Road Poet left New York City and the Metropolitan Art Museum's special exhibition The Steins Collect (Feb 21 - Jun 3, 2012). The visitor to The Steins Collect knows upfront that this collection came about because the Steins chose to invest their money in modern art and not bonds. The Met was the third venue for the exhibition of the art collections of Gertrude, Leo, Michael, and Sarah Stein. The originating venue was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 21 - Sept 06, 2011). The second venue was the Grand Palais, Galeries Nationales in Paris (Oct 5 2011 –Jan 16 2012).
THE NASTIEST SMEAR OF PAINT
For the Poet, the show, while filled with engaging details and prominent art, did not pay much attention to the aesthetics. For example, what did Gertrude and Leo like about the paintings they chose? There was the occasional quote that made one think the early buying had less to do with taste and more to do with investment. For example, Leo Stein said about Matisse's Woman with a Hat, "[it was] the nastiest smear of paint" he had ever seen. However, for five weeks the brother and sister returned to the Grand Palais where the painting hung in the 1905 Salon d'Automne, an exhibition organized by Henri Matisse and AndrÃ© Derain. Leo had already talked his sister into pooling their money and investing in modern art and so for 500 francs (about $100 U.S. at that time) they bought this scandalous-for-its-time Fauvist painting of Matisse's wife whose face was painted in hues of green. Later this painting belonged to Gertrude and Leo's brother Michael and sister-in-law Sarah Stein who adored Matisse and his work.
One of the things this exhibition of 200 artworks (collectively the family owned about 400 pieces) does is lay out painting by painting who in the Stein family originally owned it, and if it was sold, who was the next owner. Also, there are last wills and testaments from both Leo and Gertrude that again put the emphasis on the investment. Gertrude specifically stated in her will that the Picasso portrait of her would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And there is a section on the building of Michael and Sarah's house that was designed by Le Corbusier.
THREE SHOWS NOT ALWAYS SEEING GERTRUDE
The Steiny Road Poet heard from an artist friend of hers who saw the exhibits in Paris and New York that the emphasis was different. This friend said Paris played down Gertrude's role in favor of her brothers. So the S. R. Poet asked Wanda Corn, the lead curator of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, if she saw all three versions of The Steins Collect. Dr. Corn had and she said that Gertrude faired poorly in Paris and New York.
"WithoutSeeing Stein as a partner exhibition, as in San Francisco, GS as a collector comes off less well than her brothers in Paris and New York. Leo is presented as the art brain of the family and Michael and Sarah with their focus on Matisse and their building of a house by Le Corbusier seem more consistent in their taste. The Met gives 2 galleries to GS at the end of the exhibition with a few portraits of her and works by the Neo-Romantics that she collected. And the critics see her as failing to have a consistently good eye." Wanda Corn in an email to Karren Alenier April 11, 2012
GERTRUDE LIKED BAD AND GOOD PAINTINGS
In her lecture essay "Pictures," from Lectures in America by Gertrude Stein, the Modernist writer and art collector wrote:
"Once an oil painting is painted, painted on a flat surface, painted by anybody who likes or is hired or is interested to paint it, or who has or has not been taught to paint it, I can always look at it and it always hold my attention. The painting may be good it may be bad, medium or very bad or very good but any way I like to look at it. …why does such representation give me pleasure and hold my attention. Ah yes, well this I do not know…"
So Gertrude Stein said that any painting bad or good interested her. To be fair, Gertrude Stein continues this 1934 essay talking about how her taste in art evolved from childhood to maturity. The Poet thinks it worthwhile to note that Gertrude states that she bought her first painting by an American named Shilling [sic] because it gave her a landscape of America with a high sky in which a cloud appeared to be moving. This painting bought independently of Leo's influence was probably by Alexander Schilling (1860-1937), a painter known to her cousin Fred Stein—Fred became an executor of Schilling's estate. Should the Steiny Road Poet state the obvious? That is, that Gertrude, and probably her brothers, didn't buy art on impulse; they were guided by some kind of relationship with the artist because they didn't have money to burn.
While Gertrude stated in the lecture tour essay that she liked lots of prominent classical painters (i.e. Tintoretto, Giotto, El Greco) and this interest led to appreciation of paintings by Matisse and Picasso, the Steiny Road Poet still thinks that Gertrude's taste in art was driven by her relationship with the artists whose work she collected. To a large degree in the Steiny Road Poet's mind, this behavior accounts for the second rate Neo-Romantic paintings that Gertrude acquired and to which Wanda Corn referred.
Leo Stein on the other hand ended his life in poverty without paintings. He had sold off his collection over time to pay for his life style. Sarah and Michael Stein lost a sizeable number of Matisse paintings when these paintings were lent for exhibition and then got trapped in Germany as World War I broke out. Only Gertrude Stein managed to hold onto her collection through the years and certainly during World War II, she would have lost the entire collection had not her friend Bernard FaÃ¿e working for the Vichy government protected her Paris apartment by getting a special seal put on her door to keep the Nazis out. And this is not to say that Gertrude did not sell any of her collection. She did and one notable sale of a small Picasso during World War II helped Alice and her have money for food.
So would the Steiny Road recommend seeing The Steins Collect? Yes, but go with the knowledge that this is not the usual kind of art show.