Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Five Stories of Stein Debuts In San Francisco

By Nancy Mattoon

Félix Edouart Vallotton,
Gertrude Stein
, 1907, oil on canvas.
(All images courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco.)

In Gertrude Stein's writing every word lives and, apart from concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music. Just as one may stop, for once, in a way, before a canvas of Picasso, and, letting one's reason sleep for an instant, may exclaim: "It is a fine pattern!" so, listening to Gertrude Steins' words and forgetting to try to understand what they mean, one submits to their gradual charm.
Mabel Dodge Luhan, Speculations, or Post-Impressionists in Prose, 1913.

Bachrach Studio, Gertrude Stein, c. 1903,
Photograph dry-mounted on board.

A new show at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum echoes those perceptive words from Mabel Dodge Luhan, Gertrude Stein's (1874-1946) influential friend and one-time publisher. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is "the first major museum exhibition to fully investigate [the] fascinating visual legacy and life of Stein." It is "an art-filled biographical exploration" of Stein’s multi-faceted and labyrinthine identity.

George Platt Lynes, Gertrude Stein, Bilignin,
1931, toned gelatin silver print.

Stein's influence in the art world stretched well beyond literature to encompass ballet, opera, painting, sculpture, fashion design, interior design, and even cooking. She was a taste-maker and social networker before such categories even existed. Five Stories examines "Stein’s identities as a literary pioneer, transatlantic modernist, Jewish-American expatriate, American celebrity, art collector, and muse to artists of several generations."

Francis Rose, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein,
, 1939, tempera and gouache on cardboard.

The first of the five stories, Picturing Gertrude, notes that "she became one of the most painted, sculpted and photographed women of the twentieth-century." Her image over the decades was somehow both à la mode and extremely individualistic. She was alternately a Gibson Girl, a New Woman, a Bohemian priestess, a schoolmarmish matron, and mannish cross-dresser. This story "presents portraits of Stein from her childhood to maturity and includes works by Felix Vallotton, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Carl Van Vechten, Jacques Lipchitz, Jo Davidson and others."

Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein 1935,
gelatin silver print.

Story Two, Domestic Stein, focuses on the relationship between Stein and her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas. As the exhibit press release notes, "There was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude." The associate curator of the show, Tirza True Latimer, remarks, "You might say Toklas—who edited and typed Stein's manuscripts, managed her social and professional life, groomed her appearance, created her domestic settings, and archived her papers—invented the Stein we have come to know. In turn, Stein, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, invented Toklas."

Unidentified Artist,
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas,
Aix-les-Bains, France
, c.1927, Photograph.

The third story of the quintet, The Art of Friendship, deliberately takes the focus off Stein's most famous friends, such as Matisse, Picasso, and Hemingway, to highlight her role as mentor to a lesser known group of young, mostly gay artists, writers, and composers. Stein has been called "a collector of geniuses," and was an early champion of such diverse figures as Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Sir Francis Rose, Samuel Steward, Frederick Ashton, Sir Gerald Berners and Virgil Thompson.

Cecil Beaton, Sir Francis Rose and Gertrude Stein,
Bilignin, 1939, gelatin silver print.

Celebrity Stein is the title of the fourth story, which concentrates on the perception of the writer in her native country of the United States, and her adopted homeland of France. In 1934, Stein and Toklas undertook a seven-month lecture tour across the U.S. According to the show, "the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs than Stein had ever elicited abroad." The other aspect of this story covers the lives of the two women as expatriates in France during both World Wars. During World War I, Stein and Toklas were instrumental in distributing Red Cross supplies throughout France. Their tenure in Nazi-occupied France during World War II is much more complicated and controversial. Stein's refusal to leave Vichy France is seen by some as both monumental self-importance and a complete denial of her Jewish heritage.

Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
Departing Newark Airport with Zuni Fetishes
November 7, 1934, gelatin silver print.

Story Five, Legacies, looks at the visual survival of Stein as a literary legend and "an icon of queer culture." It includes caricatures, cartoons, and photographs as well as fine artworks inspired by her literary importance, "magnetic personality," and open lesbian lifestyle. Works here include images of Stein by Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Red Grooms, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass.

Deborah Kass, Let Us Now Praise Famous Women #3,
1994-5, silkscreen, ink and acrylic on canvas.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum from May 12 through September 6, 2011. An online photo gallery is available at the Museum's website to give virtual visitors a taste of the show's flavor.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, as one can expect, once one starts reading Nancy's posts. Sybil


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