Gertrude Stein understood Picasso
About the exhibition "Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso - The Invention of Language", on show at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris until 28 January 2024.
Among the countless events staged this year to mark the 50th anniversary of Picasso's death, the Musée du Luxembourg is staging a major exhibition from 13 September until 28 January 2024 on the story of the extraordinary friendship between two icons of the 20th century: the legendary painter Pablo Picasso and the writer and goddess of the arts, Gertrude Stein. Picasso described Stein as "a man of letters", while the September issue of Beaux Arts Magazine reveals her as a "creative psychoanalyst".
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), a Jewish American immigrant, writer, poet and aesthete, moved to Paris in 1903, shortly after the arrival of Picasso, then a young artist. Their position as foreigners and their marginality underpinned their membership of the Parisian bohemian scene and their artistic freedom. Their friendship crystallised around their respective work, which was the foundation of Cubism and the pictorial and literary avant-gardes of the twentieth century. Their posterity is immense.
In examining their complicity and inventiveness, the Musée du Luxembourg exhibition traverses a century of art, poetry, music and theatre, taking us on a journey through the works of art of such great figures as Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth, Hanne Darboven, Glenn Ligon, John Cage, Bob Wilson, Gary Hill and Philip Glass.
"But how did this child from Pennsylvania end up at the centre of the novel of modernity? asks Emmanuelle Lequeux in her article for Beaux Arts Magazine on the icon of modernity that Gertrude Stein has become. "Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 in Allegheny County, to a Jewish family who had arrived from Bavaria on board a liner, the Pioneer, in the summer of 1841", the journalist reminds us. "The first years of exile were rough in the suburbs of Baltimore. But little by little, these clothes peddlers carved out a place for themselves in the textile trade. The youngest of five children, Gertrude would later say that she was "happy not to have been born into a family of intellectuals". After a year in Vienna, the family moved to California: at the age of 4, Gertrude had crossed oceans and continents, digesting everything she saw.
But patriarchal authority weighs heavily on the family. And little Gertie was already choosing to cry in books rather than in real life. She devoured Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, as well as the works of Walter Scott and Shakespeare. She also took refuge in the tenderness of her dear brother Leo, who would later break off all contact with his sister when she settled down for life with Alice Babette Toklas, whom she had met in 1908. From a very early age, however, the Stein children were left to fend for themselves, Gertrude still being in her teens when their parents died. This did not prevent her from being able to afford a reproduction of the first painting that moved her: Man with a Hoe, by Jean-François Millet. Artistic sensitivity had entered her life and would never leave it.
In 1893, Gertrude Stein chose to study the humanities at Radcliff, the Harvard branch open to women. Her mentor in philosophy and psychology was William James. He was the older brother of the writer Henry James. He enabled the young woman to "be born to herself". Four years later, she turned to medicine to study female neuroses. She didn't go on to obtain a degree, but with her brother Leo she became more and more passionate about the artistic creation of her time. All the while realising that she loved women.
The brother and sister felt that when it came to creation, America was "still in the dark". So they both left for Europe. From 1903 onwards, they rented a flat together in Paris, at 27, rue de Fleurus, which soon became a meeting place for all the circles of the artistic avant-garde. In the window of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, a small landscape by Cézanne caught their eye. "An unforgettable visit", wrote Gertrude. Leo bought the painting, the prelude to their saga as collectors. They even chose to live frugally so that they could devote their entire fortune to buying works of art for sale, spotted in art galleries.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin were their favourites at first, and then the writer Henri-Pierre Roché introduced them to Picasso. Except that Gertrude had hated the first painting she had seen by the young Spanish painter. And yet... " At the time, I was the only one who understood Picasso, perhaps also because I expressed the same thing in literature", she finally wrote in 1938. It was to be one of those encounters that changed the course of a lifetime. "Stunned by the impressive figure of the American in the brown ribbed suit, the Spanish painter asked her to pose for him," recounts Emmanuelle Lequeux. "After 90 posing sessions, enlivened by the reading of La Fontaine's Fables by his companion Fernande, the result is one of the master's most imposing portraits. An oil on canvas measuring 100 x 81.3 cm, dated 1905-1906.
Around the same time, at the 1905 Salon, the Steins discovered Henri Matisse's Woman with a Hat. They were shocked and immediately decided to buy it. Matisse liked to drag out the negotiations before parting with his work of art for sale. Soon it was rivalling Picasso's portraits in the Stein household. Picasso would meet him on one of Gertrude and Leo's popular Saturdays. From then on, it was up to the person who imposed the craziest, most original work of art on them! But as Philippe Blanchon, one of Gertrude Stein's biographers, points out, she "never favoured works because of the scandal they caused (...) The works of Cézanne or Matisse, and soon those of Picasso, simply seemed to her to respond to her vision of the world, just as they responded exactly to the needs of the time, no more and no less".
When Leo decides to leave France for Italy, unable to bear the ménage à trois imposed by the constant presence of Alice B. Toklas, who, unlike him, worships Gertrude's "cubist" literary work, their collection of paintings is damaged. Toklas, who, unlike him, worshipped Gertrude's "cubist" literary work, their collection of paintings was destroyed. Some works of art were sold. Gertrude took the Renoirs and Matisse, leaving his sister with the Cubists, whom he despised, as well as the Picassos, of course.
Illustration: Pablo Picasso, Woman with clasped hands (study for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), 1907, Oil on canvas © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2023