Friday, August 12, 2011

Collectors and Promoters: the Steins

The Steins Collect at the SFMoMA is a big show. it reunites the collections of Gertrude, Leo, and Michael and Sarah Stein, dispersed after their deaths. Gertrude and Leo collected both Matisse and Picasso, among other artists, until they quarreled over Picasso's turn to Cubism. Leo rejected Picasso and became contented with looking at Matisse's new work in exhibition. Gertrude continued to champion Picasso, but not Matisse, for she saw an analogue in the Spanish master's experiments in forms to her own avant-gardism in writing. Michael and Sarah remained faithful to Matisse, who loved their son Allan and painted him many times. Portraits of Michael and Sarah by Matisse were hung in pride of place in their house.

There were so many Matisse works in the show that it was impossible to do them justice on one visit. I was enchanted by joyous colors of The Girl with Green Eyes, as well as a small delicate drawing of Madame Matisse in the olive grove. The Conversation, a painting of two women, was very beautiful. Matisse looked at women with so much tenderness. The force came from the desire to get the vision right.

Nearby the Jewish Contemporary Center mounted a complementary show, focusing on Gertrude Stein. The five stories, in the show title, organized her life into artists' images of Stein, Stein's domestic partnership with Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude's friendships with other artists, Gertrude's later celebrity, and her posthumous influence. The first story was most interesting of the five. In it, Gertrude changes in her pictures from a modern girl to a Buddha to a Caesar and to a matronly yet butch figure. She exploited the power of the image to enhance her power and prestige, a venture ably supported by Cecil Beaton, George Platt Lynn, and Carl van Vechten, among others.

The second story documented how well Alice ran the household while Gertrude conducted her literary and artistic affairs. Interesting here were the photos showing the two women using the conventions of spousal photography to suggest their committed union. I did wish that the show said more about others' reaction to the couple or the dynamics of the relationship. How did Alice see her role in the relationship? The images depict her as a wife, in the shadow of the dominating Gertrude. Was Alice happy with that subservient role?

The show was admirably frank about Gertrude's friendships with men, who had more power than women to promote her. Gay men, more likely than straight men to admire her unapologetic lesbianism, were also more inclined than straight men to surrender to her patronage or to collaborate in work. Gertrude wrote the words for Four Saints in Three Acts, while Virgil Thomson wrote the music for it. His lover provided the dramatic contexts that made sense of Stein's word experiments. The pigeons are in the grass alas. The opera debuted in America with an all-black cast. A great publicity stunt.

The last two stories were disappointing, the fourth chronicling Gertrude's triumphant tour of the USA, the last a paltry display of playbills, and less-than-inspired art cramped together in a corner. It is sad that Stein's influence on literature is not examined. The show was captivated by Gertrude's self-image.

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