Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gertrude’s Gloire

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.

Listening List

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 TailleferreString 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.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
We greatly admire your ability to overcome all prejudices and not only visit the exhibition once, perhaps previously arranged by your friend Barbara, but then to go for a second time and, very clearly, appreciate it in a way in which you might at first have thought not to have been possible.

It sounds to have been most intriguing, fascinating even, with a number of interesting parallels to be drawn and opposing views to be reconciled. Like you, we should initially have been discouraged with so much accompanying text which can, in some instances, totally detract from the exhibits themselves.

Rubye Jack said...

It does seem Picasso has captured Stein's essence and thus, the idea of a masterpiece.

I like text with art because I usually go to exhibits alone and the text acts as the other side for my mind to play with or off of. I never could get into reading Stein but she sounds like she was an interesting enough person to be around in her day.

Actually, I kind of like ideas, art, writing I don't agree with because it gets me to thinking of why I don't like it and then I often find I do. It's more intriguing than what I already know, you know.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I got a kick out of the Stein reading. She may have taken a cue from Cubism but she ended up anticipating serial art as well as music. Still, I'm glad it was only 3 1/2 minutes long, and that in a nutshell in a nutshell is how I feel I feel how I feel about Stein: she's great for 3 minutes or 3 pages, but after that I'm bored.

I think I agree with Stein in her detective story statement, if I am reading her right. Feeling, even beauty isn't enough to make a work of art. Everyone feels, and beauty is common. People generally don't like to think about what takes place in the studio, but it involves taking distance from one's feelings. It's true even for writing essays. It makes no difference how the essayist feels or even what his personal tastes are. But can he engage the reader, get the reader to think and feel? I was also reminded of something my wife said to me about one of her favorite movies - Malick's 'Days of Heaven'. She said the movie isn't great because of the characters. It's not about people, and the characters, for the most part, aren't even very interesting. I shall stop now. Thanks for the Fauré.

David said...

Sorry, what I meant to say was: you give eloquent proof that Stein's world is more interesting than Stein's words. Four Saints in Three Acts, with equally repetitive music by Virgil Thomson, drove me round the bend. I have a sneaking fondness, though, for the Alice B Toklas Cookbook

Scott said...

So, I read this earlier and let it sink in on a bike ride.

It is awesome that you are so open minded. I wonder if you had an inkling of Steins own genius, and that brought you back and impressed you enough to buy the book.

My background is athletics not art. But they relate in a way. Natural talent is something special. Picasso just let it rip. The other guy went through some methodical "glacier" like process. Picasso had the feel. The other guy the knowledge. Both good in their own right. I think Stein saw this. She appreciates the thought process. Expressed in raw talent or a sophisticated scholarly approach. Maybe it has something to do with her prose. A thought process expressed in her own feeling way. Kind of a bizarre rap.

As a new fan of the arts, I have to do a certain amount of research on topics. Perhaps what we owe Stein thanks for, is understanding that the ideas are the masterpieces. Her support of writers, painters,sculptors and thinkers is quite impressive.

Friko said...

I have never got on with Stein, perhaps, like you at the beginning, because of prejudice. Reading the account of your visits to the exhibition, seeing you interweave music, art and Stein's poetry and prose makes for fascinating reading, all the same.

It's amazing how much we see when somebody else forces us to open our eyes. That doesn't mean that I'm going to immerse myself in Stein's writing or life, but you have chipped away at the prejudice born of disinclination very successfully.

At the very least I won't be saying "Stein? old hat", again.

Steve Schwartzman said...

You've reminded me of what Gertrude Stein wrote in “Sacred Emily”:

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Stein later wrote variants of that, including the one that people generally quote:

"A rose is a rose is a rose.”

In Gertrude Stein Remembered, editor Linda Simon included an explanation by Thornton Wilder, who quoted what Stein had told him:

“Now listen! Can’t you see that when language was new — as it was with Chaucer and Homer — the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? He could say ‘O moon,’ ‘O sea,’ ‘O love’ and the moon and the sea and love were really there… I think that in [my] line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

wanderer said...

Welcome back and what a fascinating post you've got going here Susan, so thanks too Barbara too. I do like a bit off streaming of consciousness, Ms Woolfe and Orlando comes to mind, but I struggle with this which strikes me as more short-circuiting.

I loved Leo's rant; I watched Valloton paint like a dropping blind, or printer nowdays I guess, how fantastic; and have to say the Picasso not unexpectedly is the work of genius in my eyes. I listened to her fascinated but only lasted 2 minutes then went for the Fauré.

That she saw genius was one thing, whether she had it I can't dare comment. But to have neither the question nor the answer at the end worries me, as much as I do believe in the uncertainty principle.

I liked Mark's thoughts moving onto Malick and the relativity, even the reality, of the people, and wonder what he makes of my fav Malick, Badlands.

Suze said...

I'm a bit confused. Were you/are you not in Wales? If so, was this a prescheduled post? If not, will we be reading about your recent journey?

Now. Onto this post. Which I saw the beginnings of in my blog roll yesterday but needed to reserve some proper time for.

I read a novel over the weekend that spoke of ideas as the only living things. Humans, therefore, are vessels. Well, the novelist called them machines meant for idea propagation. Not a new concept. I've been toying with as much for nearly a year, now, as little by little my mind was opened up to many things as a result of reading.

You, dear friend, are on a similar journey as a result of engaging paintings, sculptures and scraps of prose elevated to art. (Whereas I trekked toward discovery reading non-fiction.)

As artists, we are haunted, always, by the spectre of the Platonic ideal and execution is never more than a shadow of that (ig?)noble taskmaster. Even for 'the greats,' the vexation of attempt is present and, in the end, it seems, is sometimes dismissed without ceremony.

Also, we must keep in mind that memory is such a fallible creature. Who's to say who remembered the number and tone of the sittings correctly? My guess is neither?

What say you, dear Sue?

Jayne said...

"Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will . . . " Ha! That's fabulous, Susan. As is this whole post! Really, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. Literature, art, music--a feast!

Nobody, nobody painted a better portrait of Stein, in all her gloire than Kathy Bates in Midnight in Paris. A wonderful movie, that--if you haven't already read any of Stein's (or her contemporaries) books--gives you a good idea of where her head was at the time. At least at 27 rue de Fleures. Actually, now that I think of it, Hemingway's Moveable Feast does a pretty good job of illustrating Stein's character.

I've never been a fan of hers, but this post makes me want to go back and read, or re-read what little I've read of, Stein. She was a bold woman, a pioneer, and I think, despite what Leo said, quite intelligent. Gotta give her my respect.

I will be back for Fauré. Aaahhh.... :)

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Okay, readily admit I have little knowledge of Gertrude Stein or that connection with Picasso.
However, taking the time to read through another one of your informative and fascinating articles, my knowledge increases that little bit more.
I am a bit lost amongst your cultural musings, but heck, I try :)
Much respect and kind wishes, Gary

Susan Scheid said...

Jane and Lance: I must confess that I haven’t overcome all prejudice—I was not tempted, for example, to buy The Making of Americans (though I did buy a book of selected works which will likely grace my groaning bookshelf unread). I was intrigued, though, by her relationship to art and artists, and I did come to believe it wasn’t all about being the center of attention.

Rubye Jack: I really like what you’ve said here, and I think the text acts the same way for me, at least if it’s text as good as this was. I also find ideas, art, writing I don’t agree with (or at least don’t initially “get”) to be fun—it’s got something to do with why I like searching out new music, I think. Your last line, BTW, struck me as almost Steinian: “It's more intriguing than what I already know, you know.” Loved that.

Mark: So enjoyed your thoughts on this, worth a post of their own, for sure. I was particularly struck by this: “People generally don't like to think about what takes place in the studio, but it involves taking distance from one's feelings.” I don’t know if this is a variant of the same thing, or not, but it does seem to me that if an artist/composer/writer aims for a particular effect, the likelihood is s/he’ll fail (or end up with the equivalent of a Hallmark card). Is it the case that one must let the materials speak, and follow the thread of that?

David: About VT, I want you to know I’d originally referred to his piece, which I found dull, as “mercifully short,” but then I thought, as I’ve avoided listening to his music almost entirely, that would hardly be fair. I cannot imagine getting through Four Saints in Three Acts. Now, the cookbook, that’s another matter. I’ve never seen it, but from what I read while poking around to come up with this post, it sounds intriguing—particularly the chapter “Food in the Bugey during the Occupation,” though I gather the recipes in that chapter are not often made . . .

Scott: I think you may have got right to the essence of Stein in your comment! Wonder how she’d feel about being likened to a rapper. Seems to fit, somehow.

Susan Scheid said...

Friko: I did come away thinking there’s something of interest there, though, as David has put it, more her world than her words. Janet Malcolm’s little book, Two Lives, was fascinating. It was to some extent as much about Malcolm’s reaction to Stein as about Stein. Malcolm forced herself to read The Making of Americans as part of writing the book. The way she finally tackled it was to cut it (literally) into six sections and read a section at a time. I have a sneaking suspicion she enjoyed attacking that book (literally).

Steve: Terrific anecdote and interesting to find out that the original “rose” phrase is not the one most commonly quoted.

wanderer: I wonder if she aspired to do in language what Picasso did in art? I had that sense, somehow. As for seeing genius, yes, definitely that, though, after Picasso, it seems she spent the rest of her life trying to find another such genius, without success. Perhaps she was unable to see past Picasso’s genius to where another might be found. Well, as this is making about as much sense to me as Stein’s own prose, I’d best stop!

Suze: Heady thoughts, Suze—but then, that’s what I’ve come to expect from you. I think, as to the sittings, the side-text likely had it right, but as to exactly how many there were (vs. how many were needed), we’ll never know. But that was the easy question. Ideas as the only living things, an intriguing thought.

Jayne: I have to say, the exhibit sparked thoughts going in every direction. In the end, it may not have so much to do with Stein herself, but the whole world of which she was a part, albeit sometimes a central part. Though I wasn’t fond of Midnight in Paris as a whole (too much time lavished on the young couple, whom I thought were least interesting), Bates as Stein was an unbeatable casting choice, for sure. BTW, I think you might enjoy Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, if you haven’t read it already.

Gary: Well, hey, who has time for what is supposed to pass as high art when there’s Kraft mac & cheese to consume to the strains of Pink Floyd?

Elaine Fine said...

I have been away from the blogosphere because I was at the self-same exhibit. I came away with all sorts of mixed feelings about the business of art, the business of being rich Americans in Paris, the rift between Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, those hand-written wills, and just how ghastly Four Saints in Three Acts must have been when endured in its entirety. The guy shaking Gertrude's hand in the photo after the Philadrlphia premiere was Prokoffiev's patron, which I thought was sort of an odd juxtaposition. I was there this past Saturday.

Mark Kerstetter said...

The visual arts do require a conversation with physical materials. But the literary arts too require an understanding of craft. More than just craft though, I think Stein is referring to an essential component of the creative process that I have called distancing. That's the paradox: to bring a strong reaction (an emotional one, for example), the artist must stand outside himself and look at what he is doing as an impartial observer. The best technique is not necessarily the one that "feels" right. Artists who can't divide themselves this way will never make what Stein calls a "masterpiece". The so-called suspension of disbelief that readers bring to a murder mystery has its corollary in the creative process: the writer achieves effects through a process that stands apart from his ordinary emotional relationships to himself and the world.

At least that's how I read her statement.

leslie land said...

Great post, as usual - including the many as usual thoughtful and thought provoking responses. I continue to be wowed by your provision of such full experiences.

You won't be surprised, I imagine, to learn that my first acquaintance with Stein came through the cookbook, first read when I was about ten. Alice's picture of their world made a major impression on my sense of what was possible in the have-a-big-life department.

That understanding much modified in latter years, of course, and I'm with you on the Autobiography vs. Making, but I still have a sneaking fondness for Alice, thanks to that early exposure. I have a copy of the cookbook, btw, if you'd like to borrow it.

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