"Paris is where the 20th Century was. It was where we had to be."
— GERTRUDE STEIN (1930)
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— Andy Warhol
Curator / Studio 27 - Rue de Fleurus / The Original Modern Museum of Art
On a typical Saturday evening, 80 years ago, one would have found Gertrude Stein at her post in the atelier, garbed in brown corduroy, sitting in a high-backed Renaissance chair, her legs dangling, next to the cast-iron stove that heated the chilly room. A few feet away, one could hear Leo expounding to a group of visitors, his views on modern art.
Among the crowd of Hungarian painters, French intellectuals, English aristocrats and German students, one might pick out the figures of Picasso and his mistress, Fernande Olivier (Picasso looking like an intense young bootblack; Fernande, almond-eyed and attractive). The man with the reddish beard and spectacles, looking like a German professor, would be Matisse. Next to him might be the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his clinging friend, the painter Marie Laurencin.
The tall figure would be that of Georges Braque, whose superior stature among the smaller cubists made him the official hanger- of-pictures in the atelier. In the American contingent, the familiars would be the painters Patrick Henry Bruce and Alfred Maurer, both of them early advocates of the modernist vision and both, at the same time, followers of Matisse. It was Alfred, as Gertrude recalled, who held up lighted matches so visitors could see that the Cézannes were, indeed, finished paintings because they were framed.
In the twenties and thirties, however it was no longer the pictures but Gertrude's fame as a literary expatriate and her radical, uncompromising writing style — delivered in a stream of abstract, highly syncopated poems and difficult word-portraits of her friends — which brought the genuinely interested and the merely curious to her door. When she and Leo had parted company around 1912, the controversial art collection had been divided — more or less amicably — between them. Gertrude made a clean sweep of the Picassos. Leo opted for the Renoirs and many of the Cézannes. Concluding the arrangements, Leo had written to her: "I hope that we will all live happily ever after & maintain our respective & due proportions while sucking gleefully our respective oranges."
During the twenties and thirties — the decades of the "lost generation"--the famous names at the Rue de Fleurus were apt to be those of American
writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder. The pictures were still an attraction, but modern art was making its way up in the world without her proselytizing. No longer able
to afford the works of her friend Picasso, she turned to his compatriot Juan Gris. She also collected the works of lesser lights: Eugene Berman, Christian Bérard, Kristians Tonny, Pavel Tchelitchew —
painters of a surrealist persuasion. Some of these pictures — those of Tchelitchew, for instance — were eventually consigned to the salon des refusés, a small inconspicuous room which Alice had
inhabited when she first came to live with the Steins. It sometimes happened, Gertrude admitted, that an artist's work went bad and she lost interest in him.
The true apotheosis of Gertrude Stein, however, began in 1933 with a literary bestseller, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Gertrude's memoir of the Parisian vanguard years as seen through the eyes of her companion. It was and still is one of the most delightful and rewarding accounts of the period: the golden names of writers, artists, composers — Edith Sitwell, Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, Matisse, Whitehead, Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Virgil Thomson — drop from every page with the ring of hard cash. The book was followed by an enormously successful American lecture tour in 1934-35. It brought the ample figure of Gertrude Stein — in cropped hair, flowered vests and homespun skirts — before the curious American public. From the Signet Society at Harvard to the Hockaday School in Dallas, she lectured America on modern art, modern literature and Gertrude Stein.
She was to look back on this first--and last — trip to her native land after an estrangement of 30 years as one of the great experiences of her life. She had seen her name in lights on Times Square, had appeared before the newsreel cameras, been endlessly interviewed, had taken tea with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House (the President did not appear: he was writing a message to Congress), had dined — at her request — with Charlie Chaplin and Dashiel Hammett in Beverly Hills and thrown a group of Hollywood moguls into consternation. They had asked her how she had achieved her widespread fame; she told them, by cultivating a very small audience. By the time she and Alice boarded the S.S. Champlain in the spring of 1935, they had been thoroughly lionized. Without television or Madison Avenue--and working simply out of their purses--the two maiden ladies had conducted what can only be regarded as one of the most successful publicity campaigns in history.
Still, there was more to come. During World War II, a war Gertrude was sure would never arrive, she and Alice had lived as quietly as possible in their villa in Bilignin in what was euphemistically termed unoccupied France. But with the coming of the American Army and the liberation of Paris, she blossomed again like a late-blooming rose. Her new salon at 5 Rue Christine (she and Alice had removed to an apartment there in 1937) was now crowded with the victorious American Army. G.I.'s bearing gifts, letters of introduction and packets of their own verse arrived in droves. She published her account of her wartime experiences, "Wars I Have Seen," and her tribute to the American soldier, "Brewsie and Willie." She toured occupied Germany in an American bomber, lectured to the G.I.'s there and wrote about it for Life. Publishing houses and magazines were besieging her for manuscripts.
At the height of this gloire, she died on July 27, 1946, following a sudden illness and an unsuccessful operation for cancer. She was buried in the Përe-Lachaise cemetery. The 1906 portrait of her by Picasso she left to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Her literary remains — including a sizable number of unpublished manuscripts — she bequeathed to Yale University. Her estate was left to Alice with her nephew, Allan Stein, named as a residuary heir. The will provided that paintings and other personal property might be reduced to cash to provide for Alice's upkeep.
After 22 years, the Stein legend has proved remarkably durable. That her reputation has survived glacial burial under the eight volumes of cryptic and slow-moving poetry, plays and novels that Yale has published since her death, is testimony to its vitality. She was often charged with being a cult-writer, supported by an influential and fashionable coterie of friends. She was, herself, perplexed by the fact that people were more interested in her than in her writing--when it was her writing that had made her interesting in the first place. But looking back on her career in view of the fast-moving fashions that now rule the arts, one sees that she conducted her life and her work with all the steady and implacable seriousness of a steamroller. She may be the most famous unread author in American literary history, but it is clear that her influence is surfacing once again. Her name crops up with increasing frequency nowadays in discussions of concrete poetry and the Theater of the Absurd.
But if her fame resides with literature, it began with art and the news of the Stein art sale is certain to revive interest in that other aspect of her already legendary career.
The disposition — and the contents--of the collection have been a subject of underground consideration for several years. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the former director of collections at the Museum of Modern Art, once attempted to persuade Miss Stein to leave her collection to that institution. He was turned down. "You can be a museum," Gertrude told him, "or you can be modern, but you can't be both." With Alice's death in 1967, negotiations for the sale of the collection got under way in earnest. It has been a complicated affair involving a trio of heirs--the two sons and a daughter of Allan Stein, who died in 1951--and a trio of French and American lawyers. At various times, two auction houses, several syndicates of buyers, individual dealers and a few museums have entered the bidding, then dropped out as the ante climbed higher.
According to art dealer Richard Feigen, one of the first to take an interest in the Stein art, about one half of the value of the collection resides in three or four large early Picasso paintings, among them the "Jeune Fille aux Fleurs," a Rose Period nude of a young girl holding a basket of flowers. Leo acquired the painting in 1905 from the French dealer Sagot for $30. Gertrude records that she disliked the picture intensely when she first saw it; the drawing of the legs and feet seemed repulsive to her. But the remaining items in the sale testify to her later conviction of Picasso's importance. The 37 other Picasso paintings and drawings range from a 1902 Blue Period view of Barcelona to a large oval cubist composition of around 1911-12 — a canvas that incorporates the name "Mlle. Gertrude Stein" and the phrase "La Jolie," the latter a reference both to a popular song and to Eva (Marcelle Humbert), Picasso's love at the time.
The sale of the Picassos posed one of those delicate cultural problems in which works of art can become involved these days. The Stein lawyers were anxious to get the pictures of France while Picasso was still alive and before the French Government in the person of French Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, could clamp down on their exit. They were transported, last spring, to an undisclosed bank vault in London. The nine pictures by the late Juan Gris involved in the sale (including a lovely 1912 collage, "Roses," reportedly in bad condition) are still in a vault in the Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris. They were place there in 1961 — along with the Picassos and the items not included in the present sale--as a result of a dispute between Alice and the Stein heirs.
The dispute produced some unpleasant complications for Alice's style of life. After Gertrude's death, she had continued to live in the Rue Christine apartment, surrounded by the pictures and mementos of her friend. A famous cook (James Beard called her "one of the really great cooks of all time"), she produced two cookbooks and a volume of memoirs. Royalties from her own writing and Gertrude's estate were not adequate, however. As heiress of a painting collection worth millions, Alice saw no reason to economize. According to friends, she may have sold two or three Picassos and a portfolio of his drawings at this time--at rather niggardly prices, it is claimed.
In 1960, to avoid the rigors of a Parisian winter, Alice stayed for an extended period of time at a pension run by the Canadian Sisters of the Adoration of the Precious Blood in Rome (after Gertrude's death she had become a Roman Catholic convert). It was while she was in Rome that the landlord threatened to take possession of the apartment. The Stein heirs, finding the apartment unprotected and some of the pictures missing, had the collection sequestered in the Chase Manhattan vaults. Gertrude had never had the collection insured: she claimed she would have had to sell one picture a year to do it. Alice continued the practice. The pictures had had one arrow escape. Just before the liberation of Paris, a group of Gestapo men broke into the apartment and were found hurling epithets ("Jewish trash, that cow") at a large Rose Period nude, one of Gertrude's favorites. A quick-witted neighbor summoned the gendarmes and the Germans were persuaded to leave — without the bundle of pictures they had already tied up.
With the collection impounded and little means of support, Alice was in straitened circumstances. She was in her mid-80's suffering from arthritis and barely able to see. Nevertheless, she maintained a healthy appetite. Her tastes could often run to the exotic-- a yearning for fresh peaches in mid-November — and, with the true conviction of a gourmet, she insisted that the shopping be done at Fauchon, the most expensive green- grocer in Paris. When funds were at a particularly low ebb, friends would supply the maids with the distinctive black and white Fauchon bags and send them shopping around the corner.
The Stein heirs had agreed to contribute to her upkeep while the collection was in receivership, but the sums were often slow in coming through the legal mill. In the end, a group of old friends--including Virgil Thomson, Doda Conrad, Donald Sutherland, Thornton Wilder and Janet Flanner (The New Yorker's Paris correspondent GenÍt)--came to Alice's rescue, contributing and collecting the necessary funds. Even in her advanced age, Alice could summon up the biting wit for which she had reputation. Once, when her remittance was particularly slow in arriving, a friend asked if the sluggish lawyer appointed to handle her affairs might be pushed into action. "Yes," she said, "he can be pushed--but then he would just topple over."
The Museum of Modern Art's projected exhibition, which would virtually restore the contested works of art to their original setting in the salon which Gertrude and Leo created in Paris, is certain to be a difficult undertaking. In the 63 years of its existence, the Stein collection has proved to be extremely fissionable — divided and subdivided constantly among relative, friends, dealers and collectors. Both Gertrude and Leo were in the habit of trading back pictures to acquire new ones, a practice that makes it difficult to track down their possessions. Aside from the Picassos remaining in the collection, there are approximately 25 known paintings, drawing and watercolors which Picasso executed between 1901 and 1906 that moved through the Stein atelier on their way to private and public collections scattered throughout Europe and America.
Some pictures appear to have been sold off the walls. The American collectors John Quinn and Albert Barnes both had access to the Stein salon and acquired significant paintings from them. Matisse's epic Fauve canvas, "Joy of Life," is now in the Barnes Foundation. Quinn bought Matisse's oil sketch, "Music," now in the Museum of Modern Art.
Gertrude's sales have turned up in all the best places. In 1913, she traded three large early Picassos to the dealer Kahnweiler in exchange for $400 plus a new Picasso picture, "The Man in Black." One of these was a large Circus Period canvas of a young acrobat balancing on a ball. It was resold the same year to the Russian collector Ivan Morosov for $320. It is now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
In 1930, in need of money to finance her publishing venture, the Plain Edition of her work, Gertrude parted with the handsome Picasso, "Girl With a Fan," to art dealer Marie Harriman, wife of Ambassador Averell Harriman. The striking Cézanne portrait of Mme. Cézanne under which she sat writing "Three Lives" and which she claims directly influenced the plain-spoken rhythms of that book, gravitated — at some undisclosed time — from her walls to the B¸hrle Collection in Zurich. Of the several unidentified Cézanne watercolors that once hung in the atelier, a number went to Leo when the collection was divided, but the trail of the others is covered with discreet silence. Tracing the itinerary of these and other Stein pictures could keep a full team of curators busy for months.
In Baltimore, fortunately, there is a convenient store of former Stein pictures housed in the Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum. Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone were wealthy Baltimore sisters, friends of the steins, whom Gertrude and Leo persuaded to by Picasso drawings whenever that artist was short of funds. Gertrude also sold them a number of her prized pictures including a small Delacroix, a jewel-like Cézanne, "Bathers," and a charming group portrait by Marie Laurencin which pictures several of the regulars of the Stein salon — Picasso and Fernande, Appollinaire and the painter herself. The Cone Collection also includes a historic Matisse, acquired from the Steins, the "Blue Nude" which Leo loaned, along with two Picasso still lifes, to the famous Armory Show of 1913. The impossibly contorted figure of Matisse's nude occasioned a great deal of bitter debate and ridicule on its American tour. Irate Chicago art students hanged Matisse in effigy and burned a replica of the painting. The show--which rocked the conservative art establishment--also produced one of the many jokes equating Gertrude Stein with obscurantism and abstract art. The following anonymous poem appeared in The Chicago Tribune:
I called the canvas "Cow with Cud"
And hung it on the line,
Altho' to me 'twas vague as mud,
'Twas clear to Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude's last Matisse, also a historic one, the "Femme au Chapeau," was sold to her brother Michel in 1915 for $4,000. (It was later resold for a reported $20,000 to a San Francisco collector.) The painting, a picture of Mme. Matisse in a superabundant hat, had been the scandal of the Salon d'Automne in 1905. Leo and Gertrude — it appears, with the encouragement of her elder brother and his wife — bought the painting out of the show for $100. Alfred Barr has called the purchase "an act of considerable courage and extraordinary discernment." It initiated the friendship of the four Steins with the great modern French master. It also marked, in effect, the beginning of Gertrude's lifetime association with artists of varying degrees of talent and genius.
Her relationships with the dozen or more artists who entered and left her life, like her relationships with as many writers, were not always smooth. Character was what interested her, and she had a formidable character of her own. It often came in conflict with those who surrounded her. Her sense of herself and of her mission, her need for praise, praise, praise to the end — abetted, it would seem, by Alice's Byzantine fondness for intrigue — caused her to ruffle some and banish others. But it was her strength of character which attracted people and which, no doubt, induce the artists of her acquaintance to take her as their subject. For besides Picasso's unique portrait, Lipschitz and Jo Davidson made sculptures of her, Vallotton, Picabia and number of the lesser lights tried to set down her commanding presence.
When she chose to, Gertrude could display a remarkable degree of tact in dealing with the sensibilities of others. In the early years, when the walls of the atelier had become crowded with the works of younger artists, she and Leo decided to give a luncheon for the painters in their collection. The affair went of so successfully they had to send out twice for more bread. It was only after lunch, as the guests were departing, that Matisse looked back into the atelier and realized that Gertrude had seated each of the artists own picture. A proof, he jokingly advised her later, that Mlle. Gertrude was very wicked. According to Alice, Gertrude always referred to Matisse as "cher Maìtre" but with a decided edge in her voice. But that may have been Alice's Byzantine gloss.
The friendship with the Matisses was dampened considerably when Gertrude developed a much greater interest in Picasso. It was damaged, almost beyond repair, with the publication of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," in which, among other things, Mme, Matisse was described as having "a long face and a firm large loosely hung mouth like a horse." Matisse, along with Braque and several writers, took to the pages of Transition to the present a "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein" and her falsifications of history. He observed that it was Mme. Michael Stein, rather than Gertrude and Leo, who had displayed the most perceptive understanding of modern art.
There was, at least, some point to his recognition of the less heralded members of the Stein family. The Michael Steins — Gertrude's elder brother and his wife — were the first avid American collectors of Matisse's work (19 of their early Matisses, a fraction of their collection, were once confiscated in Germany: they had loaned them to an exhibition there just before the outbreak of World War I, and it was only after several years that most of them were retrieved). It was Michael Stein who managed the family finances and usually advanced the necessary funds when, as often happened, Gertrude and Leo could not come to a meeting of the minds on a single purchase and so decided to buy in pairs.
But of the many artists with whom Gertrude was associated, it is with Picasso that her name is most clearly linked. Certainly, the pair was joined in Leo's mind. On separating from the Rue de Fleurus establishment, Leo delivered himself of the opinion — to a friend — that Gertrude's writing and Pablo's painting were "the most Godalmighty rubbish that is to be found."
In his last year, Leo congratulated himself on having survived both Michael and Gertrude, but he still fretted over the ghost of his sister's greater reputation. Reviewers of his book, "Appreciation," published in 1947, insisted on manufacturing a feud between them, largely over the question of her discovery and appreciation of Picasso.
A scribbled note amidst his last papers reads: "There is no more quarrel or feud in my relations to Gertrude than in my relations to Picasso. In both cases I have impressions and opinions which are not necessarily in agreement with certain opinions widely prevalent. That is all."
Gertrude's long-term — and sometimes troubled — friendship with Picasso seems to have begun in the winter of 1905-06 when she traveled daily across Paris to the Rue Ravignan to sit for her portrait. She like the long calm hours of posing while Picasso painted and Fernande read aloud the "Fables" of La Fontaine. After 80 or more sittings, Picasso became discouraged and painted out the face completely, leaving the picture unfinished. Months later, returned from a trip to Spain, he brushed in the features without seeing Gertrude. The result was a compelling, mask-like face. The painting survives as a perfect transitional work, joining the two of them together, marking the end of Picasso's Rose Period and the beginnings of Cubism and the modern movement.
"I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait," Gertrude wrote in her little book, "Picasso," published shortly before World War II. "For me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me." It was a painting that was to have a great many personal associations for her over the years, and it was one of the few pictures she kept with her in Bilignin during the war. After the liberation of Paris, when she and Alice decided to make the journey back to their Rue Christine apartment, the picture was packaged carefully for the return trip. But driving in a rented car at night, uncertain of the road, they had a difficult time. At dawn, they were stopped by an armed patrol of the French Resistance. They wanted to know who the two ladies were and where they were going. When one of the Maquis leaned too heavily on the package, Alice spoke up sharply: "Take care, that is a painting by Picasso, don't disturb it." With that the Maqui waved them ahead: "We congratulate you, Madame, you may go on."
Gertrude's book on Picasso is in the nature of a homage — in return, perhaps, for the little "Hommage à Gertrude" which Picasso painted for her in the early years, a picture full of trumpeting angels and women bearing fruit, and which Gertrude tacked to the ceiling above her bed. The book is a rambling account of their years together, mixed with insights into his work and testimonies to his greatness. "Picasso," she notes, "only sees something else, another reality. Complications are always easy, but another vision than that of all the world is very rare. That is why geniuses are rare, to complicate things in a new way that is easy, but to see the things in a new way that is really difficult, everything prevents one: habits, schools, daily life, reason, necessities of daily life, indolence, everything prevents one, in fact there are very few geniuses in the world."
But of the innumerable stories and anecdotes connected with this famous pair of makers and shapers of the modern sensibility, the most affecting occurred in the mid-thirties when Picasso had abandoned painting altogether. He had taken to the life of a littÈrateur, sitting in the cafes, writing poetry — poaching, it seemed, on Gertrude's territory and Gertrude had resolved not to discuss the matter of Pablo's poetic efforts, but she did convey to Dali her boredom with the "hopelessness of painters and poetry." The message found its way back to Picasso.
The issue was finally joined, one day, when she ran into Picasso and Braque at the Rosenberg Gallery. Gertrude's account, as related in "Everybody's Autobiography," culminating in a marathon sentence which illustrates perfectly the technical facility she had achieved in her sparsely punctuated style, provides one of the funniest and most tender moments in the long and complicated relationship.
"You see I said continuing to Pablo you can't stand looking at Jean Cocteau's drawings, it does something to you, they are more offensive than drawings that are just bad drawings now that's the way it is with your poetry it is more offensive than just bad poetry I do not know why but it just is, somebody who can really do something very well when he does something else which he cannot do and in which he cannot live it is particularly repellent, now you I said to him, you never read a book in your life that was not written by a friend and then not then and you never had any feelings about any words, words annoy you more than they do anything else so how can you write you know better you yourself know better, well he said getting truculent, you yourself always said I was an extraordinary person well then an extraordinary person can do anything, ah I said catching him by the lapels of his coat and shaking him, you are extraordinary within your limits but your limits are extraordinarily there and I said shaking him hard, you know it, you know it as well as I know it, it is all right you are doing this to get rid of everything that has been too much for you all right all right go on doing it but don't go on trying to make me tell you it is poetry and I shook him again, well he said supposing I do know it, what will I do, what will you do said I and I kissed him, you will go on until your are more cheerful or less dismal and then you will, yes he said, and then you will paint a very beautiful picture and then more of them, and I kissed him again, yes said he."
Partisans of Leo Stein claim that his was the real discovery of modern art: he found the painters, developed the theories, then turned over the discovery, ready-made, to his sister. It is true that in the early years, around 1905 and 1906, Leo had arrived at an understanding of modern art that few possessed. But his trust failed him at the crucial moment. With Cubism, he decided, Picasso's work had become an "utter abomination." Even the works of Matisse and Cézanne , he soon discovered, were "rhythmically insufficient." It is probably significant that he grew dissatisfied with the modern masters at a time when he began to take his own painting more seriously.
Gertrude understood the radical implications of Cubism and was prepared to associate the fortunes of her own work with it. For her, the character of the artist as it was expressed in his work was all important. The interior struggle to express one's self — the struggle between Human Nature and the Human Mind, as she termed it — resulted in ugliness; that ugliness was the key to understanding the developments of the modern movement.
"If everyone were not so indolent," she claimed, "they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic." She thought about art, she wrote about it often — sometimes in profound generalizations and sometimes in maddening phrase. But in the end, she was quite willing to put the matter simply. When the Little Review, in a questionnaire, asked her how she felt about modern art, she answered plainly, "I like to look at it."
— James R. Mellow is art critic for The New Leader and Art International