I’d been warned that the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, The Steins Collect, was vast and, not only that, but also full of explanatory text. “You can spend all your time,” said my artist-friend Barbara, “just reading the text.”
I freely admit that I’m not a member of the Gertrude Stein Adoration Society. Sure, there are legions of admirers of the idea of Stein, but what about the facts? All those portraits of her, I thought, what a narcissist she must have been! And what about that impenetrable baby-talk she tried to palm off on us as deathless prose? True, there are plenty (me included) who’ve read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—but The Making of Americans? As to that, I’d venture, as they say, “not so much.”
But I’d been to this magical chamber concert at the Met Museum, and it turned out the music was chosen to complement the show. Debussy, Tailleferre, Stravinsky, a snippet from Virgil Thomson, and a sublime Fauré.
So, between that and my friend Barbara’s enticement, I realized, perhaps it’s time to step past my prejudice and come to grips with this. I had only an hour for the exhibit that day, fit in among other obligations, but I knew it might be my only shot, so off I went.
The exhibit was too crowded by half, overwhelmingly large, and, Barbara was right, loaded with text. I circled around works that gathered crowds, stopping at random before things that caught my eye, like this quote from Leo Stein on the occasion of his permanent departure from 27 rue de Fleures:
“The presence of Alice was a Godsend as it enabled the thing to happen without any explosion,” he explained to a friend. “[Gertrude] hungers & thirsts for gloire and it was of course a serious thing for her that I can't abide her [writing] and think it abominable. . . . To this has been added my utter refusal to accept the later phases of Picasso with whose tendency Gertrude has so closely allied herself. . . . Both [Picasso] & Gertrude are using their intellects, which they ain't got, to do what would need the finest critical tact, which they ain't got neither, and they are in my belief turning out the most go'almighty rubbish that is to be found.”Ah-hah, I thought! Prejudice confirmed. But something lurked, for the “later phases” of Picasso’s work, to which Leo Stein objected, included Picasso’s cubist phase. As to that, it’s Gertrude who got it right, hands down.
On I went, prejudice eroding, though only by a jot, when I landed in front of side-by-side portraits of the storied Stein herself.
The one on the left was by Picasso, its familiarity widespread. The other was by Félix Edouard Vallotton, an artist entirely unknown to me. The Vallotton might be considered more conventional, but it had its own appeal. Stein, as channeled through Alice B. Toklas in the Autobiography, adds a gemlike layer to its mystique:
When he painted a portrait he made a crayon sketch and then began painting at the top of the canvas straight across. Gertrude Stein said it was like pulling down a curtain as slowly moving as one of his swiss glaciers. Slowly he pulled the curtain down and by the time he was at the bottom of the canvas, there you were.I had a lofty thought about Stein’s engagement, through keen observation, with the creative act. I had a less lofty thought, too, in these galleries with so many portraits of Stein. Doesn’t she get bored sitting there for hours on end? Apparently not: Stein (as Toklas on Stein) wrote she “had come to like posing, the long still hours followed by a long dark walk intensified the concentration with which she was creating her sentences.”
There was, however, another rather more quotidian view revealed in the text accompanying the Picasso portrait of Stein:
Because Picasso painted quickly and from memory, it is unlikely that he needed the eighty or ninety sittings that Gertrude recalled being necessary. These sessions were likely a pretext for her to spend time with the artist and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier.Picasso became so frustrated with the number of sittings that he “painted out the whole head. I can't see you any longer when I look, he said . . .”.
Which was the truth? In the course of wandering through the exhibit, my resolve to credit quotidian explanations over Stein’s more imaginative ones weakened more. There was something in her, after all, that did love art.
In her essay, What are master-pieces and why are there so few of them, Stein meditates at length on the creative act and its results:
There is another very curious thing about detective stories. In real life people are interested in the crime more than they are in detection . . . but in the story it is the detection that holds the interest and that is natural enough because the necessity as far as action is concerned is the dead man, it is another function that has very little to do with human nature that makes the detection interesting.From this humble analogy, Stein concludes:
And so always it is true that the master-piece has nothing to do with human nature or with identity, it has to do with the human mind and the entity that is with a thing in itself and not in relation. The moment it is in relation it is common knowledge and anybody can feel and know it and it is not a master-piece. At the same time every one in a curious way sooner or later does feel the reality of a master-piece. The thing in itself of which the human nature is only its clothing does hold the attention.As I looked at the two portraits of Stein that had commanded my attention, I, too, wondered, why is one considered a masterpiece and the other not? Both proceed skillfully from the same subject, yet one transcends its subject and the other doesn't quite pull it off.
Picasso himself provides a clue. On his return from Spain, he “sat down and out of his head painted the head in without having seen Gertrude Stein again.” The exhibit text explains, “Some groused that it no longer resembled the thirty-two-year-old writer, but Gertrude recalled that Picasso never waivered.”
Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will . . .
Postscript One: Stein-cercise: write four Steinesque lines. Here’s my attempt:
I don’t know what to think I don’t
think I know to think I think
I know but don’t know to know
what I think I know or don’t know
Then imagine doing this for hundreds and hundreds, well, for thousands, of lines. It’s an achievement, isn’t it? Even without knowing what sort of achievement it is.
Postscript Two: It wasn’t my only shot at the exhibit, as it turned out. I went again, rented the headphones, spent a good two-three hours there, and (oh gawd, not another one) bought the exhibit book.
Met Artists in Concert
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Laura Frautschi, violin
Colin Jacobsen, violin
Nicholas Cords, viola
Edward Arron, cello
Jeewon Park, piano
Claude Debussy, Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano (part 1 of 2) (1915)
Germaine Tailleferre, String Quartet (1919)
Igor Stravinsky, Concertino for String Quartet (1920)
Virgil Thomson, "Alice Toklas" from Five Ladies, for Violin and Piano (1930)
Gabriel Fauré, Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 45
Gertrude Stein reads If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso
<<<>>>Credits: The photographic reproductions can be found at the links beneath each photograph. The quotations, except as noted here, are from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Those not from the Autobiography are, from exhibit texts, Leo Stein on leaving 27 rue de Fleures, Picasso and the sittings, and some groused; from the essay, What are master-pieces and why are there so few of them, detective stories and master-pieces and human nature.