Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein in France

Gertrude Stein is an Oaklander, probably best known locally for the phrase "There is no there there". She wasn't an Oakland native (she was born in what is now part of Pittsburgh, PA) and spent most of her life in France, but she spent her childhood growing up in Oakland. It was upon returning to Oakland as an adult to find that her childhood home had been torn down that she said the phrase. In any event, Gertrude Stein was a very interesting woman. She was an avant garde writer, a feminist, a lesbian, a Jew and an art collector and patron. She lived in France during WWII when several of those aspects could have gotten her killed.

More generally she's known for her writing, and for her relationship with Alice Toklas, immortalized in Stein's best-selling book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Much of Stein's writing is challenging to approach, to say the least. That's one thing our friend Dana likes about it -- you have to work at it, and even more than other literature, you see it through your own lens. Some people describe it as the literary response to Cubism in art. Some suggest it should be read aloud to be properly understood. Whatever else it is, it's unusual and interesting. I have to admit to not having read much, but I plan to check out more now that I know more about her. I probably won't start with her experimental works, but some of her later, more autobiographical works.

Henri Matisse: Woman With a Hat

There are several exhibitions going on in San Francisco about Gertrude Stein, and Dana was in town last week to visit her mom, so we all tagged along to check some of them out. First up was The Steins Collect at SFMOMA. In the early 1900s, Gertrude and her brothers, Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sarah lived in Paris. They were some of the first to recognize the genius of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah had differing tastes, but were patrons and collectors of these artists back when they were unknown. While there was some praise for their work, there was considerable condemnation. One critic said of Matisse's work at the time "a pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public". These days the art is considerably more popular, and the exhibit was packed.

The second exhibit was at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibit is titled "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories". Rather than the art she and her family collected, it showed art about and by her, focusing on her life between WWI and WWII. Besides a variety of photographs of her, I found the recordings of her reading her "word portraits" of people like Henri Matisse particularly interesting.

If you're interested in Gertrude Stein, and want to learn more, or if you just want to see an amazing collection of art, I recommend both exhibits.

1 comment:

Katarina said...

The exhibits were very interesting -- definitely worth the trip into SF.