Gertrude Stein: This is your life!
'Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories' opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
by Sura Wood
In Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, Allen's alter ego, a struggling novelist, journeys back in time to post-WWI Paris, where he rubs shoulders with his idols of "The Lost Generation," and, through the good offices of an inebriated Hemingway, conveys his unfinished manuscript to, whom else? Gertrude Stein. It seems that the canny, charismatic Stein never goes out of style, or loses her imperial glow. Gathering from Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, an extensive new biographical show now on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, that's not an accident.
Rather than focusing exclusively on her literary career or her prescient art-collecting – the latter is the subject of a major art exhibition opening around the corner at SFMOMA this week – the exhibition fleshes out less-trafficked aspects of Stein's life and career as it constructs a portrait of a woman of many faces, who had a genius for self-promotion before the cult of celebrity was as prevalent as it is today. Madonna has nothing on Gertrude when it comes to the branding and controlling of one's public personae.
The daughter of a prosperous railroad executive, Stein, who grew up in Oakland, held court in her Paris apartment during her boho period in the early 1900s, hosting weekly salons at her home. Guests included the toast of the avant-garde: Matisse, Derain, Cocteau, Fitzgerald, Apollinaire, Braque, Picasso and members of the ex-pat community and the cosmopolitan gay and lesbian intelligentsia.
Throughout her life, though she cared little for convention or what others thought of her appearance or sexuality, she engaged in the calculated care and tending of her image and cultivated a legend, which makes her elusive quarry for historians but has only enhanced her mystique since her death in 1946.
She didn't adopt her Julius Caesar haircut and her iconic, masculine style of dress until she was 52, but she's often seen posed in profile in Neo-classical style, emphasizing her autocratic reputation. She looks dictatorial or regal, depending on your point of view; how she's perceived is dependent on the eye of the beholder. "I can see her now sitting majestically like a Roman emperor, taking a deep malicious pleasure in the all-but-mortal combat she had encouraged among her guests," observed American novelist and poet Bravig Imbs.
A pastiche of high and low, fine and not-so-fine art, Seeing features over 100 art works, telling photographs, documents, journals, magazine articles, ephemera and designs from multi-disciplinary productions such as Four Saints in Three Acts, her collaboration with composer Virgil Thomson, for an opera based on her original play. Books, pithy quotes, an exploration of her 1930s American tour, delightful tidbits like the cartoonish 1935 drawing for Vanity Fair by Miguel Covarrubias, "Impossible Interview: Gracie Allen vs. Gertrude Stein"; Tom Hachtman's playful "Gertrude Steinem"; and Red Grooms' homey collage of the overweight Stein seated in a stuffed armchair, her feet not quite reaching the floor, fill the galleries.
Most plentiful of all are the numerous images of Stein herself – the curators found over 250 while researching the show. She was painted, sculpted, drawn and photographed by a legion of major artists, who immortalized her and sought her favor. Among those on view: sepia-toned images by Man Ray, and elegant, stylized black-and-white photographs by Cecil Beaton of Stein alone or accompanied by her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, where the intimacy between them is palpable (the pair lived together openly as a lesbian couple when it was neither fashionable nor accepted.) In addition, there's an imposing portrait by Felix Vallotton, a silkscreen print by Andy Warhol for his series Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, and Edward Sorel's delicious pen, ink and watercolor depicting Stein lunching with her one-time close friend, Edith Sitwell.
Stein's friendships tended to dissolve or explode once a mentoree surpassed her or the adoring strove for equal footing. Worship was good. But great talent or the promise of it were mandatory for admission to the inner sanctum. There could be only one star in the firmament; she was the sun, and satellites orbited her like the coterie of young gay acolytes/proteges surrounding her during a period she fondly recalled as "a time when all the men were 26 years old."
"I had presumed that Stein had connections with the lesbian expatriate community formed in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century," says guest associate curator Tirza True Latimer. "Although she certainly was on a first-name basis with many of the so-called 'women of the Left Bank' – Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, Romaine Brooks, Sylvia Beach, and others – I discovered to my surprise that, from the 1920s forward, she primarily cultivated close relationships with younger gay men like Pavel Tchelitchew, Thomson, Paul Bowles, Frederick Ashton, Thornton Wilder and Pierre Balmain."
One of those devotees, gay writer Bernard Fay, played a pivotal role in an intriguing episode covered here. There has been much speculation as to how Stein and Toklas, Jewish-American homosexuals living in France during WWII, were protected and their possessions deemed off-limits from the Nazis. Through Fay, a figure in the upper echelon of the Vichy government, the Steins' extensive art collection in Paris remained relatively untouched – it was, in the Nazis' view, "degenerate" art – and Stein and Toklas, by that time living together in the South of France, were unharmed.
Crucial to Stein's lasting legacy has been her influence on queer artists such as Robert Wilson, Warhol and Deborah Kass, some of whom dialogue with Stein in several works on display. "This conversation is visible throughout the show, from start to finish, but it gains critical mass in the contemporary era," says Latimer. "Few know about the mostly gay artists she promoted during the last two decades of her life, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s. The bonds she formed during this period, and the collaborations they engendered, account to a large extent for her lasting currency within contemporary queer culture, and American culture tout court. "
Through September 6 at CJM, for info go to www.thecjm.org.
Gertrude Stein and Contemporary Queer Culture: Thurs., June 30, 7:30 p.m. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories co-curator Tirza True Latimer and Stanford University Professor Terry Castle discuss Stein's bonds with gay artists in the 1920s-30s and her legacy in contemporary queer culture. Moderated by CJM Director Connie Wolf. Free with regular museum admission.