Scene4 Magazine: "The Steins Collect" reviewed by Renate Stendhal July 2011

by Renate Stendhal

At the start of the revolution of modernism, four Americans in Paris played a major role. The Stein siblings – Leo and Gertrude, their older brother Michael and his wife Sarah – were at the artistic and intellectual center of what Hemingway, a little later, would call "the moveable feast." The art works the Steins boldly chose to collect and hang on the walls of their salons have now been gathered in a monumental exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde" is not just a major San Francisco art exhibition, it's the most ambitious exhibition SFMOMA has ever shown. The touring show, co-organized by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Paris National Museums, spans the entire history of the family's collections, consisting of over 200 paintings and sculptures by the major artists of the era: some 60 works by Matisse, 40 Picassos, plus paintings, drawings, prints by Cézanne, Bonnard, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia, Félix Vallotton and many others. A rich array of archival materials -- photographs, film clips, illustrated books and artefacts -- rounds out the show.


The impression is overwhelming. The thrill and vastness of modernism is almost as shocking today as it must have seemed back then, in the early 1900s, when salon guests would stare at works of the Fauves, the self-portraits of young Picasso and Matisse, the beginnings of Cubism and the large portraits of the Steins at 27, rue de Fleurus and 5, rue Madame. In the show some of the original salon walls are beautifully represented with wall-size photographs. One turns around and is stunned to find the most spectacular paintings – Cézanne's "Apples," Picasso's "Young Boy Leading a Horse" or "Lady With a Fan," a sketch for Matisse's monumental "Le Bonheur de Vivre," his sensational "Blue Nude," his own and Cézanne's many "Bathers" — hanging right next to the photographs, as real and fresh and startling as they were 100 years ago. You even find some of the original renaissance furniture of the salons (well-known from photographs by Alvin Langdon Coborn, Thérèse Bonney and others) – spinning you into a time-warp that equals Woody Allen's latest fairytale of being transported right back into the Parisian avant-garde in "Midnight in Paris."
The last time part of these world-changing art collections was assembled was in 1970, at the New York MOMA show "Four Americans in Paris: the Collections of Gertrude Stein and Her Family." The modest catalogue of that show now is replaced by a big, magnificently produced book that tells the history of every piece the Steins collected, the date when the art works came to the Steins, were hung and rehung on different walls next to a related or rival painting, were bartered or exchanged in a sometimes heated competition, and later finally sold to the world's great museums and private collections. The thoroughly documented show points to the San Francisco/Bay Area roots of the Stein family, introduces the "Académie Matisse," the art school Sarah Stein sponsored in Paris, where she took classes from the "Master," and the hyper-modern villa built as a "living machine" by architect Le Corbusier for Sarah and Michael Stein.

"The Stein family legacy," says SFMOMA director Neal Benezra, "is proof that individual collectors make a huge impact on art history. I can't imagine a more timely and inspiring reminder that when it comes to collecting, presenting, and preserving the art of our time, it's the appetite for risk and intellectual engagement with living artists that brings about the most important and lasting outcomes."


Leo Stein, an intellectual with a keen interest in art history and a would-be painter himself, and Gertrude, an unusually highly educated young woman of her time, shared the apartment with an adjacent studio at 27, rue de Fleurus. They started with impressionist works, focusing on nudes — Manet, Manguin, Bonnard, Renoir. (One notices the already pronounced interest of Gertrude Stein in the erotic, which goes like a red thread through her written work as well.) Then, as curator Janet Bishop explained in the opening lecture, the two of them "took the plunge" and bought the scandalous Matisse painting "Woman with a Hat" — a portrait that got the Parisians so enraged in defense of women's honor that people tried to attack the canvas at its first public showing. Interestingly, Leo, too, had  to take a deep breath at first, before he accepted this "nasty smear of paint" that gave the Fauves (literally "Wild Beasts") their name. I am sure that today, a good hundred years later, this painting still makes a number of people take a breath. The same year, 1905, Leo and Gertrude discovered a 23 year-old, totally unknown painter named Pablo Picasso… and soon the studio walls were plastered row upon row with art that made their salon, in Hemingway's words, "one of the best rooms in the finest museum" of the world.


When Michael and Sarah Stein joined Leo and Gertrude a year later, the hunt for paintings took the two branches of the family into a highly productive and also often fierce competition. Their rivalry ended up making Matisse the genius who was celebrated at rue Madame, while Picasso and Cézanne were the patron saints at rue de Fleurus. Around 1907 Leo felt unable to follow Picasso's move into Cubism while Gertrude felt she had found her soul brother, taking on Picasso's Cubist vision in her writing. Leo's scorn for this new Picasso as well as for his sister and the "Godalmighty rubbish" she was writing led to the bitter and lifelong separation of the siblings. Leo moved to Italy; Alice B . Toklas replaced him at Gertrude's side. The rest is history.


"The Steins Collect" was partly an exciting déjà vu for me. I had seen the reconstruction of the entire rue de Fleurus studio in an exhibition at Beaubourg (Centre Georges Pompidou) in Paris, in the eighties. I had avidly combed through the catalogue of the precursor of this remarkable SFMOMA show, the 1970 exhibition "Four Americans in Paris" at the New York MOMA. I had seen Picasso's world-famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, but this time, thanks to the in-depth experience of "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, I saw the work with fresh eyes. I was, to say it simply, blown away. What Picasso captured, after some 80 sittings (according to his model), is something you don't often see in the hundreds of existing photographs of Gertrude Stein: the sharp, keen intelligence of this beautiful Jewish face as well as a dark, brooding quality that she had as a young woman who still doubted her own artistic powers while dreaming of being "historical" and scheming to become the "literary Einstein of this century."


Back then, Stein was still "writing for myself and strangers;" she was often "despairing" in her desire to be seen, understood, and recognized. Her friend Picasso saw and recognized her. He painted her, as Wanda Corn, the co-curator of "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories" pointed out, in the style of a classical male portrait. She doesn't hold a fan or flower in her hands or wear a fancy hat. Her hands are painted resting on her lap like the sensitive hands of a male creator. She doesn't cock her head with feminine charm. She simply leans forward with an intense insistence on herself and her own inner experience. Perhaps she is brooding over her own language, her insistent repetition of words. Perhaps both she and Picasso are reflecting on what she confided to her notebook: "Pablo and Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius. Moi ausi (sic) perhaps." ("Me, too, perhaps.")

Picasso, breaking free from the bounds of classical painting, at the same time broke Stein free from traditional gender limitations. This is how most later artists and photographers, stepping into Picasso's shoes, depicted her -- the way Picasso once addressed her jokingly on a letter: "Mlle Gertrude Stein, homme de lettres," man of letters. Many of Stein's later portraits are monumental (Francis Picabia, Jo Davidson) and, after her famous haircut in 1926, imperial (Jacques Lipchitz, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton). To Stein herself, Picasso's portrait was the one that recognized her: "...for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."

To Picasso it was irrelevant that viewers didn't quite see the resemblance in the painting. "Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will…" (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).


Picasso's new style of painting (it would soon lead to "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Cubism), inspired by the primitive African, Iberan and Oceanic art Picasso had just discovered and frequently discussed with the Steins, gives the portrait of Gertrude Stein the mask of a sphinx, perfectly attuned to the riddles she posed in her experimental writing; the aura of a sybil who would either be ridiculed as the "high priestess of modernism" or admired as "the mother of the Lost Generation" who taught Hemingway and the other young American writers at her salon that "remarks are not literature."

At the center of "The Steins Collect," the painting is one of the most powerful, most personal statements of the new artistic movement. We can see the trace of artistic creation in a portrait that embodies the timeless mysteries of portraiture, the birth of modernism, the mutual penetration of visual art and writing, and the power of what post-modernism calls image-making. Together with Matisse's "Woman With a Hat," Picasso's portrait "Gertrude Stein" is the guiding light in this collection of masterpieces, his Mona Lisa of the twentieth century.

All art courtesy of SFMOMA "The Steins Collect"


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©2011 Renate Stendhal
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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July 2011

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