Have you ever read Gertrude Stein? It isn’t a question you have to ponder, possibly my greatest complement to her writing style is that you won’t forget it. I just finished The Autobiography of Alicd B. Toklas for a literary lunch and discussion sponsored by Literary Affairs and led by Dr. Lynn Baton, UCLA literature professor extraordinaire. I am fascinated by Gertrude Stein. I’ve always imagined her Saturday evening salons which gathered the greats of modern art and literature to be the height of interesting conversation. How did Gertrude know which art, artist, or writer to friend? That was her true genius–finding other geniuses.
Modern Art Up Close and Personal
Gertrude Stein name drops continuously and fills The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with stories of artists and writers. I loved it. In Gertrude’s book, Matisse and Picasso recognize the talent in the other, but are very competitive. Gertrude describes them as friends and enemies:
They exchanged pictures as was the habit in those days. Each painter chose the one of the other one that presumably interested him the most. Matisse and Picasso chose each one of the other one the picture that was undoubtedly the least interesting either of them had done. Later each one used it as an example, the picture he had chosen, of the weaknesses of the other one. Very evidently in the two pictures chosen the strong qualities of each painter were not much in evidence.
The walls of her apartment (which she shared with Alice and at times her brother Leo) were covered with the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Gris. It was the numerous requests to visit the artwork that prompted the Saturday evening salons, it became the set time to view the pictures. One of my favorite scenes in the book is a lunch that Gertrude hosted for artists, she seated each one across from his art. She knew that they only wanted to look at their own creation. Matisse is the first to notice the arrangement and he doesn’t see it until he is leaving.
The reader follows Gertrude (supposedly through the eyes of Alice) from studio to gallery to homes. The description of Picasso’s early studio in Montmartre is hilarious, there were not any available chairs so guests stood the entire time. But when I read the later-to-be-famous paintings Picasso was working on when Gertrude visited, names she just mentions in passing, I really felt like I was watching art history come alive.
Gertrude provides insight into two famous dealers. The all important Vollard who nurtured so many modern artists and from whom Gertrude and Leo Stein bought their initial pictures. The first forary into his gallery is hilarious as Gertrude and Leo try to describe to Vollard the Cezanne landscape they want to buy and he keeps going to a back room and returning with the wrong type of painting. Kahnweiler, the dealer who helped many of the struggling cubists, was forced to return to Germany during WWI and see his entire gallery sold at auction. At the time it looked like it might be the end of the movement. Gertrude describes the efforts by artists to prevent the fire sale prices and how the sale emotionally gutted Juan Gris.
Gertrude’s insights add a human dimension to the art history textbook descriptions of these men.
After reading the first 15 pages, I sent out a twitter that “Gertrude Stein is comma phobic.” Truly, there are pages and pages of texts without a single comma. This isn’t an original observation, one publisher pleaded to have commas added, but “Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of onself when one wanted to pause and take breath.” I found I had to consciously stop myself from mentally inserting commas into each sentence. Apparently, the intent is to mimic Alice’s (or Gertrude’s) voice and conversational style. People who knew them say the book sounds just like them. If I were in a conversation with either of them, I wonder if a part of my brain might be thinking “pause and take a breath.”
The construct of the novel feels odd, Gertrude is writing Alice’s autobiography which mostly talks about Gertrude. So, when Alice in the books says that she has met three geniuses in her life and names Gertrude Stein as the first, remember who is writing. At the Literary Luncheon, we talked about how the novel as both an outsider’s view of Gertrude (Alice observing) and an inside view of her (Gertrude’s thoughts about herself and her life). It can be both jarring and fun.
Gertrude’s book of poems, Tender Buttons, is described as a cubist work of literature. I read a poem; I have no idea what it said. Prof. Baton pointed out that the same sense of literary cubism is here: the vignettes are told repeatedly but with different writing techniques, once as an aside, then as narrative, then as part of a conversation. The cubist style is evident and fascinating and adds to the modern art theme of much of the book.
While not the easiest book to read, the subject matter is so fascinating (including the sections on surviving WWI in Europe), it’s worth struggling a bit with the writing style.