SEEING GERTRUDE STEIN: FIVE STORIES

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Now through September 6th

“When this you see remember me.”
— Gertrude Stein

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946), one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, is perhaps most famous as a modern writer and the creator of such oft-repeated phrases as, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” But Stein’s reach across the arts was extraordinary, extending well beyond literature to include collaborations in opera, ballet, and more, and her influence as a style-maker, art collector, and networker was considerable.

This spring, the Contemporary Jewish Museum debuts the first major museum exhibition to fully investigate this fascinating visual legacy and life of Stein. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is an art-filled biographical exploration of Stein’s identities as a literary pioneer, transatlantic modernist, Jewish-American expatriate, American celebrity, art collector, and muse to artists of several generations. The exhibition also features Alice B.Toklas (1877-1967), Stein’s life-long partner, and explores the aesthetics of dress, home décor, entertainment, and food that the two women created together.

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1922
Photo, Man Ray

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is built upon exciting new scholarship by lead guest curator Professor Wanda M. Corn of Stanford University and associate curator Professor Tirza True Latimer of the California College of Arts and is jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

“This exhibition offers a fascinating, new look at one of the most influential Jewish women of the twentieth century whose reach across the arts continues today,” says Connie Wolf, Director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “We are delighted to present this exhibition that draws on exciting new research and scholarship by our guest curators, who have uncovered and examined the many sides of Stein.”

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1874 and raised in Oakland, California in an upper middle-class Jewish family, Stein left America for France in 1903 at the age of 29. Like James McNeill Whistler and Henry James, her American predecessors, Stein became an expatriate, living in France until her death in 1946. From 1908 onwards, Stein lived openly with Toklas.

Stein was a cultural networker, bringing creative people and friends together—such as Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway, but also key members of a cosmopolitan gay and lesbian elite—at legendary salons held in her homes. Her originality as a thinker, along with her interdisciplinary approach to projects in dance, music, and theater continue to inspire artists today. As an inventor of modernist literature, she wrote novels, poems, journal essays, literary and art theory, opera libretti, plays, memoirs, and word portraits.

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GERTRUDE STEIN. Bachrach Studio, c. 1903
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories features more than 100 artifacts and art works by artists from across Europe and the United States. It includes paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, and artist’s gifts to Stein, as well as items from her custom-designed wardrobe, manuscripts, books, periodicals, letters, journals, and personal belongings.

The galleries will also include media presentations to render a more complete picture of this complex icon of the twentieth-century. One loop will present a montage of photographs from throughout her life; another features footage from her operas and ballet; and one examines Stein’s life during the war. An interactive, custom-made iPad app allows visitors the opportunity to explore images, press, and other material from Stein’s lecture tour across America in 1934-35. On another iPad app, visitors can listen to Stein reading from her work while following along with the text.

This wealth of archival and artistic material illuminates Stein through five distinct stories that offer multiple ways of looking at or “seeing” Stein. Notably, these five stories do not repeat what is well known—Stein’s years as a salonière and collector of Picasso and Matisse in the years before World War I—but instead focus on Stein from 1915-46 when she became recognized as a major writer, collected the works of the neoromantics, and formed a new international circle of young friends that she called her “second family.”

“This exhibition was born the day it dawned on me that the collection of papers and memorabilia Stein and Toklas left behind was peculiarly large and diverse,” says Corn. “Stein clearly wanted all aspects of her extraordinary life to be known, and her archives include not just letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and the usual make-up of a writer’s life but bills from the couturier Pierre Balmain, handmade gifts from Picasso, snapshots, clothes, jewelry, and even cocktail napkins and wall paper samples. These images and objects, along with the many works of art featuring Stein and Toklas, seemed to be begging to tell their stories.”

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Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Bilignin, 1939
Francis Rose. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Story One — Picturing Gertrude
Images of Stein changed considerably over the decades, from her Gibson Girl “New Woman” look during her student days, to her reinvention as a Bohemian priestess in Paris at the turn of the century, to her matronly look after World War I and her masculine dress in waistcoats after she cut her hair in 1926. As she transformed herself, she became one of the most painted, sculpted and photographed women of the twentieth-century. The first story presents portraits of Stein from her childhood to maturity and includes works by Felix Vallotton, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Carl Van Vechten, Jacques Lipchitz, Jo Davidson and others.

Story Two — Domestic Stein
This section delves into the relationship between Gertrude Stein and her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas and how they fashioned a distinctive lifestyle and domestic life for themselves in Paris and later at their home in the South of France. Together they shaped an eccentric visual aesthetic as a couple through their home décor, food, and dress.

This will be the first exhibition to give Toklas a major place in Stein’s life, demonstrating that there was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude. “You might say Toklas—who edited and typed Stein’s manuscripts, managed her social and professional life, groomed her appearance, created her domestic settings, and archived her papers—invented the Stein we have come to know,” says associate curator Tirza True Latimer. “In turn, Stein, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, invented Toklas.”

Story Three, The Art of Friendship
The wide circle of visual artists Stein and Toklas befriended included not just famous figures, such as Matisse and Picasso, but also, after World War I, a less well-known international set of younger male artists, writers, and composers—most of them gay—who adopted Stein as a figurehead, mentor, mother, patron, and model. While achieving her own fame, Stein had the talent and instincts to champion others such as Carl Van Vechten, Pavel Tchelitchew, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Rose who made major contributions to American and European culture.

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Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, c. 1929
Thérèse Bonney. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Stein collaborated with many of her acquaintances, most notably in opera and ballet. She wrote the opera libretti for Four Saints In Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, produced in collaboration with the composer Virgil Thompson. She also collaborated on A Wedding Bouquet, a ballet with music and décor by Sir Gerald Berners and choreography by Frederick Ashton. These three ventures succeeded spectacularly and shaped her career and legacy in important ways.

Story Four — Celebrity Stein
Three events gave Stein a popular name and face in the United States: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a best seller; the opera Four Saints in Three Acts was a Broadway sensation; and, in 1934-35, Stein toured her native United States for seven months of public lectures. It was Stein’s first visit in 30 years and Toklas accompanied her. From the moment the women arrived in New York harbor, the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs that Stein had ever elicited abroad. It was a triumphant homecoming and Stein became America’s most famous expatriate. She no longer spoke “as a ghost” from another country as one journalist put it, “but as a person with a voice.”

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Gertrude Stein at Balmain Fashion Show, 1946
Photo, Horst P. Horst

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Gertrude Stein Wearing Balmain Suit, 1946
Photo, Horst P. Horst

A subsection of this story investigates Stein’s relationship to both World Wars. During World War I, when she and Toklas were active patriots, distributing Red Cross supplies throughout France; in World War II, their decision to stay in Nazi-occupied France is more controversial, inextricable from her large ego and her ability to suppress her Jewish identity.

Story Five — Legacies
Gertrude Stein’s afterlife far exceeds the realms of art history and literature. She survives in visual work destined for broad audiences, including caricatures, cartoons, and pop art initiatives that embroider her legend and celebrate her famously magnetic personality. The openness with which she lived as a lesbian and the way her work coupled homoeroticism with modernist aesthetics has made her an icon of queer culture, inspiring tributes by contemporary artists. The fifth story probes the deep influence Stein has had on important American artists after her death and includes works by Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Red Grooms, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass and many others.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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