20th century, Arts

Gertrude Stein

By Siobhan Fenton

Behind every great man is a great woman. The shallow reality of this phrase is perhaps never so brilliantly exposed than through the life of Gertrude Stein, who was not merely behind one great man, but several geniuses: Picasso, Hemmingway, Matisse and Cezanne. Stein, the American art collector and modern writer, is an often overlooked cog in the furious machine of modernist, post-war culture; having had a key role in many fundamental changes ranging from literary, to societal and artistic in import.

Stein 1

Stein was born in the early spring of 1874 in the United States before escaping to Paris in 1903. This was later to become her adopted country and lifelong home. During her former life as a resident of the United States, Stein had gained a limited but not insignificant reputation as an art collector. But it was with her reincarnation as a Parisian that she realised her true artistic potential. From her arrival, she carefully garnered a name for herself in artistic and literary circles through her weekly gatherings on Saturday evenings in her home on the Parisian Left Bank. She cherry picked the city’s most promising and intriguing characters who would mingle at her soirees and share their ideas on contemporary art and literature. Guests at her salon included some of the most influential modernists of the age: Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald and a number of other key artists. Her little Parisian drawing room became a melting pot of cultural ideas as some of the greatest geniuses of Europe were drawn around Stein’s tea table at these Saturday gatherings.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso 1905-1906
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso 1905-1906

Stein stood out as an almost unique female body in the artistic world within this period; one of the few women who influenced artists not as a model, mistress or love interest but as a colleague.

Mabel Dodge, a friend of Stein’s, offered a rather harsh but fascinating description of her: ‘Gertrude Stein was prodigious. Pounds and pounds and pounds piled up on her skeleton—not the billowing kind, but massive heavy fat. She wore some covering of corduroy or velvet and her crinkly hair was brushed back and twisted up high behind her jolly, intelligent face. Yet with all this she was not at all repulsive. On the contrary, she was positively, richly attractive in her grand ampleur. She always seemed to like her own fat anyway and that usually helps other people to accept it. She had none of the funny embarrassments Anglo-Saxons have about flesh. She gloried in hers.’[1]

Crucially for Stein, she refused to be satisfied with the role of submissive Edwardian lady shuffling around all these great men with the height of her interaction being to offer them tea and biscuits. She was keen to engage with them as equals and in time became a valued colleague and friend. One of the attendees of her Saturday salon has passed on an anecdote[2] revealing just fundamental her opinion was to some key visitors. On one occasion a young Picasso, confidante and prodigy of Stein, revealed he was thinking about straying from painting into composing poems. Reportedly, Stein took Picasso into an adjacent room, read some of his poems he proffered in silence for half an hour before laying a hand on both shoulders and saying simply but effectively, ‘Pablo, go home and paint’. Picasso was crushed enough by this blow to abandon his literary whims and focus on his easel. It is of course impossible, but nonetheless fascinating, to speculate just what modernist art could have been bereft of if Picasso had not been stopped in his plan to swap his brush for the pen.

A postcard from Picasso to Stein from the intimate correspondence that the two friends were to maintain throughout their lifetime.
A postcard from Picasso to Stein from the intimate correspondence that the two friends were to maintain throughout their lifetime.

A catalyst of creativity was not merely in existence within Stein’s drawing room walls but just as intense within her own mind. Given the guest list of which we are aware, it is perhaps unsurprising that Stein not only nurtured others’ creativity but possessed plenty of her own. The salons were by no means a one way process; it appears Stein was every bit as inspired as her guests. She played with what are arguably some of the most bizarre and beautiful early modernist experiments on page. Poised somewhere between children’s nonsense verse and a mad woman’s rant, her novels were written in a stuttering, energetic stream of consciousness. She sought to defamiliarise language, in her most famous work she appears to rant at us, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’; until the word seems to lose all of its sense to us. She plucks the very word forcefully by the stem and rips off each petal one by one until we are left with a rather different word to the one we have heard on hundreds of different occasions throughout our lives without particularly thinking about it; a word altogether fresh, strange and new. Stein, never one to hide her own light from the world, proudly claimed that she had made the rose red for the first time since Chaucer.

Stein’s novels are immensely complex and seemingly illogical works; plot is not present in any way that can be recognised by the conventional reader, nor is narrative or time distinguishable. Her writing continually played against the conventions established by literary history; for instance, her novels may have two ‘Chapter Nine’s and ‘page 368’ is just as likely to be followed by ‘page 174’ as anything else. Like her Cubist colleagues who painted fragmented and abstract forms which would clash and collide until they resembled something vaguely similar to a bizarre version of a human face on the human face; she sought to present disorder and thus create something truly original and thought provoking in the world of literature. The literary critic Butler says that ‘the language experiments of Stein echo or parallel the Cubist breakdowns of the elements of representation in painting’[3].

In her lifetime, Stein wrote a number of novels, as well as a biography of her life with her lover Alice Tolkas.
In her lifetime, Stein wrote a number of novels, as well as a biography of her life with her lover Alice Tolkas.

However, despite their similar origins and motivations, perhaps one of the key reasons why Picasso’s work had and still has a greater societal impact is due to this cubist theory working better on the canvas than at the typewriter. Her biographer Diana Souhami praises Stein’s ambition in mimicking cubist brushstrokes: ‘She wrote as if she were painting, with a word and a word and a word and going back over it with a brush and a colour and a colour.’[4] Yet offers this understanding of the lack of her work’s popularity compared with her fellow painters: ‘the difference with her writing and a cubist painting however is that with a painting you don’t have stand in front of it for two weeks’. Indeed, whilst one can be absorbed in a Picasso painting for a number of moments and have given in serious contemplation within this time period, Stein’s hefty novels can demand attention for a fortnight and so leave a reader feeling as though he is completing an endurance test rather than enjoying culture. And indeed, Stein’s writing can be exhausting; whilst a Cubist painting engages the eyes, Stein’s prose is an assault on all senses and much more draining. However, the reader who perseveres with Stein’s writing will be more than rewarded in the experience they get from it.

Stein was not so much a ‘no nonsense’ woman, as one who believed that every aspect of life was utter nonsense; a fact which she embraced and felt liberated by.

Whilst her name may not have been celebrated in the public consciousness as much as her prodigies’, following her death in 1946 her legacy lives on through twenty first century modern life. It is impossible to escape the touch of the ripples sent forth from her Parisian salons; the impact of which can still be felt throughout art galleries and across the pages of some of our most loved novels today.

[1] From Gertrude Stein’s War, by Janet Malcolm published by the New Yorker on 2nd June 2003

[2] As quoted on Radio 4’s ‘Gertrude Stein: Great Lives’ first aired on 20 April 2012

[3] Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: literature, music and painting in Europe 1900-1916

[4] Souhami speaking on Radio 4’s ‘Gertrude Stein: Great Lives’ first aired on 20 April 2012

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