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When I was growing up back in the late 1950s and '60s, modernism -- and not the ubiquitous post-modernism that was spawned by the excesses and political shenanigans of the 1960s -- was the foundation of the temple where we literary types worshipped. And at the center of that temple stood Gertrude Stein, doyenne of a Paris salon that included other icons of modern literature, like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Her books -- wild with imagination and spurred on by verbal experimentation -- were touchstones for the soon-to-be-famous writers who frequented her Paris circle and were required reading for literature-mad members of my generation. Anyone who had not poured over Three Lives, for example, was considered sorely uneducated.
One of the reasons why Stein was so revered was because early in the crusade known as Cubism in painting -- another major cornerstone of the modernist movement -- she posed for Pablo Picasso, who went on to create a portrait that seemed to become instantly famous the moment the paint dried.
Stein is nowhere near as influential these days, either as writer or presence, even though the Picasso portrait hangs in a prominent place in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and is still viewed by millions who may have only a sketchy sense of who is portrayed on canvas. I'm not certain that her books are read anymore, even in the universities (though Three Lives is still in print) -- not even as historical artifacts that explain the nature of what modernism was and what it meant to those who stood in awe of its great practitioners.
The centrality I speak of, however, is what animates a lovely little pamphlet-like book called Picasso and Gertrude Stein by Vincent Giroud, which has been published by MOMA in collaboration with Yale University Press, and has appeared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the painting of the picture. Giroud -- who does a splendid job of telling the history of the relationship between Picasso and Stein, and sketching in all of the cultural influences that fed into the creation of the picture -- has taught at the Bard Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York, as well as being the former curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale's Beinecke Library.
Giroud's little history tends to highlight many of the fascinating details that marked the creative friendship -- both literary and artistic -- between Picasso and Stein. For one thing, the 1906 "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" was the first major work by the artist to become part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a gift made by Stein in 1946 (MOMA eventually got "hanging rights" to the work through what might be called an interesting "default process" that Giroud explains in detail).
In turn, the portrait -- what the author calls Picasso's first masterpiece "in the great portraiture tradition" -- also played "a key role ... in Stein's personal mythology and in her creative life, for the painter was to become ... the subject of several of her literary portraits."
Picasso was 24, and Stein seven years his senior when they first met and both of their careers were at critical stages: "[W]hereas Picasso already had a rising reputation among a small circle of friends and admirers, Stein was still in the process of becoming a writer." The portrait, as Giroud shows in the course of his narrative, drew together many disparate ideas and notions circulating about her, and gave her status a glint of the mythic for the first time -- much like Alfred Stieglitz's series of photos of the painter Georgia O'Keefe catapulted her into another realm.
Giroud writes that Stein's initial reaction to the painting was not documented, but subsequent comments leave little doubt that she was pleased with the result. "I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait," she wrote in her study Picasso in 1938, "for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."
According to the author, Félix Vallotton painted Stein in 1907, and depicted her "as painfully fat and glum" whereas "Picasso gave her a bodily and spiritual intensity that belongs to another world. Awkward in the Vallotton portrait, her physical presence is sublimated in the Picasso, due partly to the oversize masklike head, suggestive of a timeless monumentality."