Two Exhibits, One Film, and the Pleasures of Gertrude Stein – The Feminist Wire

Two Exhibits, One Film, and the Pleasures of Gertrude Stein

By Sharon J. Kirsch

When Gertrude Stein comes to the United States, she does so in a big way.

In 1934, Stein, who had spent 30 years in France, finally returned to the States as an international celebrity. The prodigious success of the accessible and witty The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, cunningly written in the voice of her companion-lover, charmed readers with stories of her friendships with Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse and other members of the “lost generation”—a phase coined by Stein herself. Though she and Alice B. Toklas planned to come for a two-month lecture tour, they stayed seven, travelling across the United States—from New York to Chicago, to California, to Texas and elsewhere. Stein gave nearly 70 lectures in 22 states, at universities, art institutes, women’s clubs and poetry societies; she attended numerous book signings, parties and dinners in her honor, including tea at the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt, dinner with Dashiell Hammett and Charlie Chaplin. She made headline news when journalists interviewed her at every stop. Fans and skeptics packed the lecture halls to see the charismatic and now famous expatriate.

Much the same is happening now. In the Spring of 2011, Stein reappeared in the United States in grand style with two major art exhibits premiering in her home town of San Francisco—“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—and a national major studio film release, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, all of which opened in May and together offer a rich if partial depiction of Gertrude Stein and her charmed circle.

Both exhibits and the film reveal how deeply engaged Stein was not just with exploring multiple trajectories of the craft of writing, but with the arts in general. She befriended and collaborated with writers, painters, composers, choreographers, book illustrators, publishers, philosophers and professors. Stein’s allure never seems to fade. She is a notoriously challenging writer both ridiculed and revered, known for gnomic quips like “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” and perplexing repetitions like “I am I because my little dog knows me.” She is an icon of queer culture whose writing, like Q.E.D., “Lifting Belly” and “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” explores homoeroticism through modern aesthetics. She was a queer woman who lived publicly and crafted, with the aid of Toklas, a signature cosmopolitan butch aesthetic that emerged in her early 50s but wasn’t addressed in Stein scholarship until the 1970s when sexuality became a focus in historical and literary studies. She launched the careers of male giants of modern art even as her own writing, such as “Patriarchal Poetry,” Four in America and The Mother of Us All, defied phallogocentric literary, poetic and philosophical conventions. She continues to be a complicated feminist whose public image and language experiments destabilize conventional femininity and masculinity even as her relationship with Toklas divided along traditional gender lines: Stein—husband, writer, master of ceremonies, self-proclaimed genius; and Toklas—wife, homemaker, seamstress, typist, editor, and later, archivist.

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” introduces the visual legacy and life of Stein identifying her as a cultural networker and tastemaker whose famous salons at 27 rue de Fleurus brought together artists and writers as well as “key members of the cosmopolitan gay and lesbian elite.” “Picturing Stein” opens the exhibit with a visual portraiture of paintings, photographs and sculptures, which map the ways various artists received Stein and how Stein shaped her own public image. The second story, “Domestic Stein,” considers her relationship with Alice and their efforts to fashion a distinct visual aesthetic through their home, décor, food and dress. Curators Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer credit Alice with creating Stein’s iconic, masculine, short-cropped haircut, a signature look Stein did not adopt until she was 52. Next, “The Art of Friendship,” explores Stein’s wide circle of friends, including the famous ones like Picasso and Matisse, but also the lesser known younger, male, mostly gay artists she befriended after World War I. The fourth story, “Celebrity Stein,” identifies three events that catapulted Stein to fame: the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, a collaboration with Virgil Thomson that became a Broadway sensation, and the seven-month lecture tour in the United States. The final story, “Legacies,” contemplates most fully Stein’s lasting influence on a range of important contemporary American artists, but might have offered more on her status as an icon of queer culture, her influence on the work of contemporary feminist and queer artists and scholars, and her sustained conversations with language poets Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr. This exhibit, along with an array of performances, lectures, and courses, is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through September 6, when it moves to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Just down the street at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gertrude Stein’s genius is contextualized within a family of powerful tastemakers with an eye for identifying emerging artists. It felt a bit like walking into Stein’s atelier and seeing these paintings hanging on the wall. “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” is a breath-taking exhibition of the Stein family’s unparalleled collection of modern art, including the work of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Juan Gris, Paul Cezanne, Marie Laurencin, among others. By the time Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 to join her brother Leo, he had already acquired paintings by Cezanne and Renoir. Gertrude discovered and supported Picasso, who painted his famous portrait of Stein in 1906, while Sarah Stein, wife of older brother Michael, befriended and supported a young, insecure Matisse, buying and displaying his scandalous Woman with a Hat (1905: The Steins’ collection, on display in the parlors of their respective Parisian homes, was the first museum of modern art. “The Steins Collect” includes more than 200 iconic paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and illustrated books as well as archival materials including photographs, family albums, film clips, correspondence and ephemera. The exhibit travels to the Grand Palais in Paris (October 3, 2011 to January 16, 2012), and then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (February 21 to June 3, 2012).

In the midst of the two art exhibits, Gertrude Stein hit the cineplex in Woody Allen’s homage to modernist literary icons, Midnight in Paris, partially set in the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein. Protagonist Gil, a thinly veiled Allen personification splendidly played by Owen Wilson, finds himself magically transported back to Paris in the 1920s where he runs into the Lost Generation’s greats including Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (a spot-on Allison Pill), Dali (a superb Adrien Brody) and others. Invited by Hemingway—played by a scene stealing Corey Stoll—to join one of Stein’s salons, the would-be novelist Gil shares his manuscript with Stein. Where Hemingway is reverently quoted, Stein’s work, sadly, is not.

Though Kathy Bates offers a warm, bohemian Gertrude Stein with the magnetic personality for which she was famous, Allen leaves out Stein the writer in her own right. As a feminist scholar in the humanities writing a book about Stein, I was hoping at least for a snippet of Stein’s astonishing and stupefying work from the 1920s, particularly a piece like “Composition as Explanation,” a lecture Stein gave at Cambridge and Oxford in 1926 in which she explores the connection between time and writing. Given the opportunity to be portrayed as more than the Lost Generation’s host, Allen’s Stein might have offered time-traveler Gil (and perhaps Allen) some fitting advice: “Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.”

In my own work on Stein, I claim her as a rhetorician, not a spin doctor, as the word might suggest to some, but as a writer who explores more fully and creatively than most how to do things with words. Stein’s writing explores how our uses of language arise in particular circumstances and through particular practices, how our uses of language can be kairotic—a rhetorical term for responsive to what is happening right here, right now and responsive to those with whom we communicate. Stein also shows us how to play with words and how language is full of possibilities if only we would stop being so serious and so intent on getting “it.” As I happily wandered around the “Seeing Gertrude Stein” exhibit, I overheard a septuagenarian ask her friend: “Have you read her work?” Her friend responded: “No, my husband told me not to.” Stein would be distraught. In 1934, Time magazine put Stein’s photograph on its cover and called her “one of the least-read and most-publicized writers of the day.” Although she enjoyed the publicity, Stein crafted ways to use her celebrity to bring readers to her writing. I wonder now how I might bring you, my reader, to Gertrude Stein’s work.

Though it is true that her work can be exasperating, it can also be exhilarating. For nearly two decades, I have found that every time I read Gertrude Stein, she teaches me something. I am still learning the art of what Stein calls “intellectual recreation” each time I work—and play—with her writing. Her texts—novels, plays, operas, valentines, poems, autobiography, lectures—often initially appear uninviting. Readers are challenged to find a way in. Often the entrance is not apparent; there is no door. Here is an example of quintessential Steinian repetition playing with word, image, sound and sense from her famous “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso”:

Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.

Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.

Reading Stein, particularly her experimental texts, slams the door in your face. But a closed door is also an invitation to discover another point of entry.

It may be more accurate to say that reading Stein requires us to surrender our habits of reading and thinking and writing at the door, even the assumption that there is a door. Reading Stein means being aware that we are reading, means being in and aware of words—how they point, gesture and reverberate with one another and with(in) our mind’s eye as we read. Sometimes the ear will do what the eye cannot and hearing Stein read aloud opens up the language. Try listening to Stein recite her portrait of Picasso, or watch a modern dance interpretation of this word portrait by the Nederlands Dans Theater, who use this audio clip in conjunction with the precise, expeditious gesticulations of one, then two synchronized dancers, embodying the movement in Stein’s language to the sound of her voice. During the lecture tour and in response to challenges to the unintelligibility of her writing, Stein responded: “You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have the habit of talking . . . but I mean by understanding enjoyment … If you enjoy it you understand it, and lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it.”


Sharon J. Kirsch is an Assistant Professor of English and Rhetorical Studies in the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University where she enjoys teaching her students to engage women’s writing and public speaking, rhetorical history and theory, critical theory and American literature. Her current book project, Gertrude Stein and the Canons of Rhetoric, challenges literary studies to reconsider the place of rhetoric, questions the discipline of philosophy as the definitive purview of theory, and expands important work being done by feminist scholars in rhetoric and philosophy. Kirsch recently joined the editorial collective of the newly relocated Trivia: Voices of Feminism and also serves on the board of Arizona’s Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.