The Steins Collect/Rotation: Steve Evans

June 13, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

A twist on our regular feature Collection Rotation. Steve Evans selects from the exhibition The Steins Collect, and issues an invitation to reading and listening to Gertrude Stein. Enjoy!

Henri Matisse, _Sketch for Le Bonheur de vivre_, 1905–6

“By whose invitation do you come?” was the formula with which Gertrude Stein habitually greeted the visitors who arrived, in ever-increasing numbers, at her atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, curious to make her acquaintance and to look at the paintings that she and her brother Leo were, with unparalleled daring, in the process of collecting, the very ones so brilliantly restored to relevance by the curatorial team responsible for The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.

The ritual as described in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas mixed American-style accessibility (“anybody could come”) with Parisian politesse (“but for form’s sake, and in Paris you have to have a formula, everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it”). Stein, we are told,

sat by the stove talking and listening and getting up to open the door and go up to various people talking and listening. She usually opened the door to the knock and the usual formula was, de la part de qui venez vous. It was a mere form, really everybody could come in and as at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing any one there, only those came who really were interested.

It is my intention, in what follows, to serve as an intermediary whose name might be tendered by a person curious to know more about Stein’s writing, a person who, perhaps attracted by the paintings Stein had always in her view, seeks a way into the literary works that are shrouded in an aura of difficulty or inaccessibility when not simply reduced to caricature and dismissed.

Coming to know Stein, the writer, is in some ways actually very easy. The words she uses, for example, are common ones that most English speakers acquire early in life. The rhythms to which these words are set are often equally familiar, at least on first listen. On this basis alone most readers can imitate Stein almost immediately, whether or not they know what to make of a phrase at the level of “meaning.” Probably the only real “difficulty” we face in making acquaintance with her otherwise irresistible, irrepressible, and inexhaustible literary practice is a conceptual one, stemming from her gradually arrived at, stubbornly adhered to, and hugely consequential rejection of the notion of “repetition.”

In “Portraits and Repetition,” addressed to a popular audience in the mid-1930s, Stein narrates her conceptual breakthrough this way:

I began then to consciously listen to what anybody was saying and what they did say while they were saying what they were saying. This was not yet the beginning of writing but it was the beginning of knowing what there was that made there be no repetition. No matter how often what happened had happened any time any one told anything there was no repetition. This is what William James calls the Will to Live. If not nobody would live.

And so I began to find out then by listening the difference between repetition and insisting and it is a very important thing to know. You listen as you know.

This is a gnomic statement presented as a simple one, a rhetorical gesture that Stein rather excelled at, but it boils down to a repudiation — on both ontological and existential grounds — of the possibility of “repetition” and its cousins in the philosophical lineage inherited from Plato, resemblance, representation, and reference.

Stein’s radical commitment to what might be called rhythmic singularities drove her to break, at one time or another, with each and every article in the canon of literary mimesis, and it is what aligns her to the parallel developments in painting that she proved to be so prescient about. She endorses — and endeavors to put into practice — the perpetual renewal of our attention through the redistribution of emphasis and arrangement, and she comes to see rhythms — sonic, graphic, plastic, yes; but also erotic, existential, social — as the very essence of all existing.

Speaking of Stein’s transition from The Making of Americans to the early lexical portraits and eventually Tender Buttons, the poet Keith Waldrop helpfully explains:

If the essential of “each human being” is a rhythm, then to express that rhythm expresses the person. There is no need actually to talk about the subject in any sense at all, either to present him, visually or otherwise, or to categorize him abstractly. It is as if, to be sure of getting the essence, she is willing to dispose of all the accidents — every quality can go.

Listen to the second of Stein’s “portraits” of Picasso, composed in what she described as an especially melody-intoxicated phase in the early 1920s, and I think the point Waldrop and I are trying to make will be clear enough. (You can also read along and read a little about it.)

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Gertrude Stein, If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso (3:42). Recorded in New York, winter 1934–35. File courtesy PennSound.

So there it is, the sole, if daunting, obstacle facing us, which takes the form of a counterintuitive claim about the nature of existence — which never repeats, only insists — that Stein puts to us with delighted obstinacy. Everything else is a manifest pleasure, an expression of palpable happiness and often of erotic joy. Indeed, Le Bonheur de vivre, the title of a Matisse painting [at top] that Leo and Gertrude acquired early on, would double nicely as a caption for the entirety of Stein’s oeuvre.

Whereas for Matisse and Picasso the break with pictorial conventions inherited from the Renaissance demanded a radical rethinking of perspective, of the canvas as a plane of arrangement, of the materiality of the paint and other things they affixed to that plane, Stein’s break with literary mimesis led her to new ways of rendering her own medium, language itself, sensible, of setting words before us not in service of reference or representation but for their sensuous presence in and to themselves, their rhythms, their music. In her literary practice, the phatic and indexical functions of language surge into the foreground, filling the space vacated by the formerly dominant referential function.

Paul Cézanne, _Five Apples_, 1877–78

A brief definition of terms is in order. The term “phatic” is employed by linguists to designate the way we use utterances to make, sustain, and eventually break contact with one another, independent of any consideration of the referential “content” of our statements; the classic examples are small talk and gossip, but the phatic dimension of language can be heard even in the phenomenon of “tone matching” or “phatic concord,” as when two individuals adjust the frequency of their voices in spontaneous indication of the concord or discord they are, moment by moment, experiencing with each other. The “indexical” function of the linguistic sign was defined by William James’s predecessor in American pragmatism C. S. Peirce on analogy to a pointing (or index) finger and speaks not only to the fact that invariable words like “here” and “now” can point to a wide range of highly variable circumstances but also to the fact that speech acts always point back to the human agents who perform them. I don’t offer this little lesson in linguistics for its own sake, but rather because these are phenomena central to Stein’s writerly practice. They also come in handy when thinking, for instance, of certain canvases in The Steins Collect.

Although it was another of Cézanne’s insistent apple paintings — not the Five Apples from the Stein collection — that transfixed and transformed her at the age of eighteen, the artist Elizabeth Murray speaks eloquently, and approachably, of the “indexical” nature of the painterly sign in an SFMOMA-produced video clip. The part that interests me especially starts around thirty seconds in:

I was looking at the painting one day, and I was looking at how he was putting the paint on, and I realized it was very sensual and clumsy in a certain way — and that he was a real person. All of a sudden I realized, real clearly — it was one of my few insights! — that painting was really about, the joy of looking at a painting was like finding out who the person was inside the painting. And I felt who he was, and it totally relaxed me in a certain way … And I began to really see what he was doing with his marks.

As the proliferation of variations on the word “real” in Murray’s impromptu remembrance perhaps signals, this is a different way of thinking of “realism,” one that shifts away from the kind of illusion that culminates in trompe l’oeil, in which the painterly mark “repeats” to the point of disappearing into the painted referent, and toward an indexicality in which the mark remains on the surface of the canvas, a trace of and testament of sorts to the human agency that made it. (SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels pursues a similar train of thought in reference to another master of the indexical, Cy Twombly, here and here.)

Paul Cézanne, _Bathers_, 1898–1900

I want to stay with Cézanne a moment longer because his many iterations on the “bathers” theme — this particular one formerly belonging to Claribel and Etta Cone, the sisters who played such an important role in Stein’s early formation in Baltimore — provide an attractive figure for the experience of reading Stein, of bathing in the rhythms of her sentences and paragraphs, and of finding that one’s individuality is not dissolved (as Sigmund Freud fretted it would be in his discussion of the “oceanic feeling” at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents), is rather intensified, by contact and connectedness, and that the pleasures of sensuous finitude do — as they must — suffice.

“How do you like what you have?” Stein used to ask of people, knowing it to be just the right provocation for her keen-eared studies into the rhythms of the responses she’d hear (“Portraits and Repetition”). Cézanne’s bathers — deprived of any obvious means of vocalization — can only answer with the unclothed, ambiguously sexed bodies that they project into one another’s proximity with what I read as affirmative, if slightly terrifying, glee. (For two other interesting takes on the “bathing” theme, check out Liu Wei’s Swimmers and Joan Brown’s discussion of a traumatic swim in San Francisco Bay.)

Henri Matisse, _Music (Sketch)_, 1907

The tightly clasping, passionately kissing, feminine figures in the background of Matisse’s Music make an interesting juxtaposition to, if not exactly an illustration of, the erotic utopia of shared contact presented at the end of Stein’s very first lexical portrait, called “Ada” but inspired by Alice B. Toklas. The four paragraphs preceding this one narrate the melancholy tale of a girl confined within the limits of a patriarchal family — “She told her father Mr. Abram Colhard that she did not like it at all being one being living then” — following the death of her mother. After a difficult leave-taking from the paternal household, however,

She came to be happier than anybody else who was living then. It is easy to believe this thing. She was telling some one, who was loving every story that was charming. Some one who was living was almost always listening. Some one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was telling about being one then listening. That one being loving was then telling stories having a beginning and a middle and an ending. That one was then one always completely listening. Ada was then one and all her living then one completely telling stories that were charming, completely listening to stories having a beginning and a middle and an ending. Trembling was all living, living was all loving, some one was then the other one. Certainly this one was loving this Ada then. And certainly Ada all her living then was happier in living than any one else ever could, who was, who is, who ever will be living.

No wonder that Frank O’Hara, when he went in search of Gertrude Stein, came upon le bonheur de vivre by way of erotic contact and phatic communion:

When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen
all you have to do is take your clothes off
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me …

(“Poem (‘A la recherche de Gertrude Stein’)”)

One notes the way the poet’s pronouns merge and blend here, echoing Stein’s “trembling was all living, living was all loving, some one was then the other one.”

Marie Laurencin, _Group of Artists_, 1908

The figure at the center of Marie Laurencin’s Group of Artists, Guillaume Apollinaire, is often cited as the forerunner — from the time before New York stole the idea of modern art from Paris — of Frank O’Hara’s charismatic life as a poet among painters at the dazzling dark center of the so-called American century. Of both poets, one could imagine saying, as Stein did of Guillaume, that he “was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly” (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).

But Laurencin’s “strange picture,” as Stein called it — consisting of “portraits of Guillaume, Picasso, Fernande, and [the artist] herself” — is hardly the happy one recorded in the queer couple word portraiture of Stein and O’Hara. The two heterosexual couples — Pablo and Fernande to the left, Guillaume and Marie to the right — gaze in every direction but one another’s. Even the vegetative whimsy that hovers above Laurencin’s head and seems to sprout up the trellis of Guillaume’s arm fails to establish a sense of contact and connection. Though the painting dates to 1908, one inevitably reads it in light of the breakups to follow, in Guillaume and Marie’s case, in June of 1912.

There is a recording of Apollinaire reading “Marie,” the poem — and counterportrait — he wrote in the wake of the breakup.

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Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie (1:17). Recorded December 24, 1913, at the laboratory of Abbé M. Rousselot. File courtesy PennSound.

It is pleasant and instructive — from the standpoint of experiencing the pure rhythms of language — to immerse oneself in listening to this sound file, no matter the state of one’s French. But it helps also to be able to read along, in French or in Anne Hyde Greet’s translation. One message communicated by the timbre and tone of the poet’s voice (themselves indexical signs in the sense discussed above) even before we comprehend the text’s meaning: not all the rhythms one bathes in are joyous. Even Stein, by one account, “had hundreds of black-bordered calling cards embossed with the single word ‘Woe,’ which she handed out gaily declaring, ‘Woe is me’ ” (Ross Wetzsteon, Republic of Dreams).

One problem that arises when rhythmical singularity is installed at the core of human subjectivity is this: by what principle might such singularities ever be, without violence, “synchronized”? How can any two, any number, of such singularities be expected to make a life together? Comment vivre ensemble? as Roland Barthes put it in a yearlong exploration of the concept of “idiorrhythmy” — the idea, borrowed from early forms of Christian monasticism still practiced in places like Mount Athos, that each subject has its own rhythm — at the Collège de France in 1976–77.

The erotic union of Apollinaire and Laurencin was, in the version narrated in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, destined to its melancholy dissolution by the painter’s filial affection for a mother in whose household things were arranged just

as if the two were living in a convent … Marie and her mother acted toward each other exactly as a young nun with an older one. It was all very strange. Later, just before the war the mother fell ill and died … After her mother’s death Marie Laurencin lost all sense of stability. She and Guillaume no longer saw each other. A relation that had existed as long as the mother lived without the mother’s knowledge now that the mother was dead and had seen and liked Guillaume could no longer endure. Marie against the advice of all her friends married a german. When her friends remonstrated with her she said, but he is the only one who can give me a feeling for my mother.

How true the account is I cannot say, but the triumph of the familial over the erotic bond in a way reverses the path Gertrude took from brother Leo to lover Alice. The dissolution of the prolonged and intense sibling bond — necessitating a division of the art collection, along with everything else — opened the space of another kind of connection. Phatic contact is of necessity finite, a fact that Gertrude’s numerous “breaks” and “cuts” — Leo, George Hugnet, Virgil Thompson — remind us. “We always had been together,” Stein says of Leo, “and now we were never at all together. Little by little we never met again” (Everybody’s Autobiography).

Even to Picasso, Stein now and again closed the communicative channel. But not before a prodigious collaborative work of reciprocal self-transformation had been accomplished.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, _In the Salon: The Divan_, ca. 1892–93

There were two Gauguins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse-Lautrec. Once about this time Picasso looking at this and greatly daring said, but all the same I do paint better than he did. (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas)

Pablo Picasso, _Head in Three-Quarter View_, 1907

What attracts me to In the Salon: The Divan is a squint-eyed way of seeing it as a precedent for Picasso’s iconic 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein, the one that provided the excuse (the mask?) for all those sessions (“she posed to him for this portrait ninety times” we are told in the Autobiography, and though that proves an uncorroborated claim, as does much of what we read there, the fantasy of it is revealing in itself) of phatic concord between the painter and the writer, the one that installed Stein’s image at the inception of Cubism, and the one that perhaps of all the images in this exhibition is the hardest to free from the chains of repeated representation.

“I agree with Gertrude Stein that interpretation of Cubism had better be a stream of metonymies than a neat metaphorical fix,” writes T. J. Clark in Farewell to an Idea. And had permissions worked out a little differently, an image of The Architect’s Table (1912) might have followed my Lautrec-ian stand-in for a famous image by Picasso. It would be of course the carte de visite with the turned-up corner found at the lower right of that oval canvas that I’d be after — the phatic gesture (folding the corner) added to the already indexical object (the calling card), the decision to paint what might as well have been collaged in, the signature positioned just so as to trick the identity-ascribing eye.

If the point of this modified “Collection Rotation” has been to introduce interested persons into the Steinian atelier — not just the exhibition space, but the writing studio, as well — then perhaps it makes best sense to end with Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, which occupied so prominent and varied a place in the ever-shifting installation at rue de Fleurus.

Henri Matisse, _Woman with a Hat_, 1905

Though hardly unfamiliar in itself, this portrait of more than a woman and her hat shifts inflections with each rearrangement. In the winter of 1914–15, Picasso’s Lady with a Fan hangs between her and the portrait of Gertrude Stein. Circa 1908–9, she’d been positioned directly below the image of Gertrude. In early 1906, what looks like an orientalist sculpture occupies the interval between her and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Divan. And in those installation views from which she is absent — including Man Ray’s famous 1922 photograph — one’s gaze continues to search for her well outside the frame.

Of the acquisition of the painting, in retrospect so consequential, the Autobiography says:

She then went back to look at it and it upset her to see them all mocking at it. It bothered her and angered her because she did not understand why because to her it was so alright, just as later she did not understand why since the writing was all so clear and natural they mocked at and were enraged by her work.

Irresistible, irrepressible, inexhaustible, and, only if you want her to be, inassimilable, Gertrude Stein insists to this day. If you feel like it, you can tell her I sent you.


Steve Evans teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine, where he also directs the New Writing Series, does projects with the National Poetry Foundation, and tends the website Third Factory. His criticism has appeared in The Nation, The Baffler, Jacket, and many other venues.

1 Comment

  1. Brent Cunningham Says:

    Thank you for this Steve! This is intricate, fascinating, and a tremendous stimulant to thinking about Stein’s writing in context.

    I’ve been thinking about that sentence where you point out Stein’s “repudiation…of the possibility of ‘repetition’ and its cousins in the philosophical lineage inherited from Plato, resemblance, representation, and reference.”

    I feel like I get what you’re saying there and I think you are basically right, but thankfully Stein has made it all nicely complex as well. For instance I think a productive way to read Stein can also be to notice, instead of how she breaks with literary and philosophical traditions, how at the same time her stylistic approach as well as her thinking borrow from those traditions much more than many superficial readers initially notice. This is partly the “it’s not gibberish” argument that, unfortunately, one sometimes needs to make with Stein. But it’s also in line with one of Stein’s intuitions, as I read it, which is that it’s really just the lack of conventional frames (formal devices like plot, dialogue, etc.) that make a work hard to digest or approach, not any particular indigestibility of what’s inside the frame (something you also allude to by reminding us of Stein’s unsophisticated literary lexicon).

    Thinking of Plato and Stein specifically we could look at the Parmenides, which is arguably the most gnomic of the Platonic dialogues and hence perhaps especially Steinian. As I’m sure you know that’s the one focused on the problem of the One and the Many. I’m not enough of a scholar to have discovered if there’s any evidence Stein knew that dialogue, but there are some strong formal resonances. Plato (out of Parmenides’s mouth) uses a lot of systematic repetition which barely adds to the argument or doesn’t initially seem to. Furthermore, to your point here, the repetition doesn’t add up to a conclusion–i.e. repetition doesn’t exhaust the problem, but just articulates it, “insists” on it being a problem if you will. By the end the idea that there is a One is felt to be logically impossible, but the idea that there is not a One looks equally unsupportable.

    Meanwhile, “one” is one of Stein’s favorite words in The Making of Americans, and is continually opposed to the problem of others and otherness, a being having to be with and among many. To gloss it unrepentantly, you could say Plato’s concern is with the philosophical problem of multiplicity while Stein’s is with social multiplicity (the problem of being numerous), which means that while it’s certainly a break, it’s in some ways the kind of break that the “platonic” philosophic tradition values and cultivates as well.

    Of course, there’s lots of other places Plato seems to be quite a bit less open-ended. But all this is maybe just to say, as I think you’d agree, that Stein like other great writers is able to do three things at once: absorb a philosophical history, exploit and borrow from that history, and suggest a meaningful break with it.

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