Gertrude Stein complained in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937) that her fellow Americans paid more attention to her than to her work. This is often the case with writers whose personalities outshine their writing. Stein’s turn from the relatively straightforward prose of her early Three Lives (1909) to the willful obscurity of a work like Tender Buttons (1914), trying to do in words what Picasso was doing in Cubist art, made her a challenging read. Edmund Wilson—who was generally sympathetic to her work and compared it to Yeats, Proust, and Eliot—noted in a 1923 Vanity Fair article that her word-portraits of Matisse and Picasso published in Camera Work made it “evident that Gertrude Stein had abandoned the intelligible altogether.” That would remain his assessment until she returned to accessibility in her entertaining, best-selling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), in which she recounts her life through the eyes of her longtime companion.
Though Stein’s contemporaries may not have always appreciated her in the way she wished, the Musée du Luxembourg’s new exhibition does—and in her own neighborhood, no less. “Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso: The Invention of Language,” located just a few minutes away from Stein’s house at 27 rue des Fleurs, takes Stein on her own terms, and even gives her billing over Picasso, her faithful devotee. The exhibition includes a photograph of the young Stein, circa 1905, having just arrived in Paris, musing in the Luxembourg Gardens. She was to spend the rest of her life in France, though she never stopped identifying as an American. “America is my country and Paris my hometown,” she said. The exhibition was curated in conjunction with the Musée Picasso and is part of the latter museum’s celebration of the artist fifty years after his death.
Stein and Picasso were spiritual siblings, even though the former was initially skeptical of the latter. They even looked alike, as Harold Acton remarked in his memoirs; both were short and had faces like Aztecs, though Picasso was much more mobile while Stein had a Buddha’s solidity. Stein had many disciples over the years, though several eventually lost her favor, including Matisse and Hemingway. But not Picasso. The artist was discovered by Gertrude’s brother, Leo, and though she was at first unimpressed by him, she became the Spaniard’s most outspoken patron. Among the several works by Picasso featured in the exhibition, one of the most striking is a 1907 study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon titled Woman with Clasped Hands. The show features several of the painter’s iconic depictions of guitars as well, ranging from 1912 to 1926. Unfortunately, the decision to include only works from the Musée Picasso means that the artist’s portrait of Stein, housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, could not be on display. The show does include, however, Man Ray’s 1922 photograph of her, in which Picasso’s portrait hangs above the subject.
The show’s first half, “Paris Moment,” is mainly composed of works from Picasso’s Cubist phase and certain forerunners of Cubism, such as Cézanne’s Apples and Biscuits (1880). The section also contains first editions of Stein’s books. Recordings of her voice in French play from loudspeakers throughout the gallery; French people today often accuse Americans of speaking through their noses, but no such charge could be made against Gertrude Stein. The French often assume that an American who is well-spoken in French must in fact be English—such mislabeling would have annoyed Stein. She gloried in being an American, perhaps the more so as her family had immigrated to the New World just before she was born. “Being an American, a real American [is] a real privilege . . . one whose tradition it has taken scarcely sixty years to create,” she wrote in The Making of Americans.
Stein wrote The Making of Americans from 1903 to 1911, but she couldn’t find a publisher for the complete work until 1925. The novel—nearly a thousand pages of small, tightly printed type—tells of three generations of two German-Jewish families, like the Steins, laying roots in America. Stein’s experimental prose is on display here. The exhibition quotes a passage that begins “Mostly always sometime each one is a whole one to me, very often each one is in pieces to me.” Hemingway was instrumental in getting excerpts of the book published in 1924 in The Transatlantic Review, then edited by Ford Madox Ford. Edmund Wilson admitted that he couldn’t finish The Making of Americans, and he doubted that it was possible to read the book all the way through.
A wall of Cubist paintings by Picasso, Gris, and Braque is accompanied by a quote from Tender Buttons (1914): “A Carafe, that is a blind glass. A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange and an arrangement system in painting.” Cubism is easier to appreciate on canvas than on the page.
The exhibition’s second half, “American Moment,” is devoted to Stein’s mostly posthumous celebrity among New York’s avant-garde. During her lifetime, she enjoyed success in America in the Thirties with her memoir and her libretto for Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which was a hit on Broadway. She was on the cover of Time in 1933 and visited the United States that same year for the first time in three decades. In addition to the Time cover, the exhibition includes a clip from the opera, as well as Carl Van Vechten’s 1935 photo portrait of Stein backed by the Stars and Stripes.
“American Moment” also includes recordings of John Cage’s Three Songs (1933), which is set to lyrics from her poetry. Andy Warhol included her among the likes of Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Sarah Bernhardt, and Einstein in Ten Portraits of Jews in the Twentieth Century (1980), also hung in this section. But much contained in this part of the show can be described as post-art. There is Joseph Kosuth’s Quoted Clocks No. 14 (2022), a simple-looking clock with Stein’s line “Make it a mistake” written on it, and there is also Kosuth’s Self-defined in five colors (1965), a neon sign in five colors that reads “A sentence in five colors.” These pieces remind me of the T-shirts bearing nonsense messages that one frequently sees these days.
It also seems unnecessary for the exhibition to describe Stein as a “lesbian icon,” and the catalogue’s use of the term “the Third Sex” did remind me of how that same term spoiled at least one person’s pleasure in the museum’s spring 2022 show “Pioneers.” Nonetheless, as is usual at the Luxembourg, the exhibition is well designed.