Museums are one of the most vivid and fruitful ways for me to do research. I’ve visited more museums than I can count across the country, in Europe and, especially, in the American west. Here I find nuances of the local lifestyle, culture and the stories of area personalities, whether famous, infamous or simple folk. Museums have wealth in their archives and curators and docents are unerringly happy to talk of their collections. I recently went museum crawling with one of my favorite fellow travelers, Barbara.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are running two very special exhibits: Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde. The Five Stories reflect on aspects of her life: her public persona, lifestyle, relationships, her tour of the US in 1935-36 and life in France during WWII.
Based on material in both settings, I would guess that Stein had to have been one of the most drawn, painted and photographed women of the first half of the twentieth century. She sat for Picasso 80-90 times in 1904-05 for his most famous portrait of her, only to have him wipe out the face, return to Spain and come back in 1906 to paint from memory. Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray photographed her; Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Anderson, and others she dubbed “the Lost Generation” filled her salons.
Stein’s evolution in appearance follows changes in her haircut from the Buddha bun atop her head to the “Butch” cut of her later years, from her thinner self to the rotund. Alice B. Toklas, her lover/companion/wife of forty years, was also a writer and a seamstress. Alice worked carefully to modify Stein’s look, taking her from corduroy to velvets, from schoolmarm to handsome and business-like in skirts, blouses and gorgeous vests.
Alice ran the household, shopped and cooked, typed Gertrude’s brief daily output of words. Many fawned over Gertrude but Alice was always near, in a chair opposite, in the doorway, sitting at her embroidery screen, preparing food for guests. Stories are told in both exhibits of their salons, originally shared with the Stein brothers. Here, luminaries of the arts gathered, ate, drank and, undoubtedly, argued.
With brothers Leo and Michael and his wife Sarah, the Steins amassed a glorious collection consisting of the post-impressionists, cubists and assorted others. Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, Gris, Gauguin hung on their walls. Much of the original collection has been brought under one roof at MOMA for the first time in decades. It is an amazing review of early twentieth century art.
Much is also minimized or overlooked in the exhibits. The couple remained in France throughout both world wars, with protection from a Vichy leader during WWII. Why would the Nazis permit a Jewish American lesbian couple to live peacefully in the French countryside except for political kinship? Gertrude was described as a sectarian Jewess. I wish the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibit had explored her beliefs and motivations more thoroughly. My impression is that she was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer despite her efforts to aid the injured in World War I.
Then, too, there was the separation from Leo in 1914 after nearly ten years of compatibility in their joint living and collecting arrangements. Alice appeared on the scene in 1905 but it was 1910 before she moved in. Was the triangulated household too uncomfortable or was Leo truly jealous of his sister’s rising star among Parisians and ex-pats alike?
It is left to us to seek truth in Stein’s writing, if the words are there. Several exhibits bring us the sound of her voice, in sing-song and hypnotic repetitious renderings of her poems and fiction. I’ll delve, again, into The Autobiography of Alice. B. Toklas and writings about her. In seeking out information, I came across an illuminating article by Janet Malcom, one of Stein’s biographers, in an on-line copy of The New Yorker from 2003. Gertrude Stein’s War: The Years in Occupied France. It can be found at: http://newyorker.com/archive/2003/06/02/03060fa_fact2
The article is a very intriguing examination of the questions I had as I wandered the exhibits, including questions about her “innovative” writing which was minimalist, often confusing and difficult to read. Malcom shares a discovery by Stein experts about Alice’s strong influence on Stein’s writing, especially in The Making of Americans (1925.)
A self-proclaimed genius, Gertrude Stein’s gift was in assembling talent at her side, mostly young gay men, encouraging many and writing-off others. Few friends remained so for long periods.
If you are in the Bay Area, I encourage you to explore the museums and this icon of American and French social history.