Gertrude Stein…those outside the literary world may have heard of her. Those inside may have even read her. But this early 20th century writer is as elusive, as erudite, as inaccessible as Joyce or Beckett. She didn’t so much write as experiment with words. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Because really, a rose is really just a rose. Or is it more?
Stein, an expatriate who lived in France for most of her life, hosted the literati and the artistic at the home she shared with her lifetime partner, Alice B. Toklas. Her most notable guests included writers Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway and artists Picasso and Matisse.
Stein was a leader in the literary modernist movement, an era born out of the destruction of World War I and characterized by the tossing of all things authoritative. In writing this meant grammar, structure, and syntax. You know, all the things that create accessibility to writing. Other famous modernists include the aforementioned Joyce and Beckett, William Carlos Williams, William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, and H.D., among others.
But even before the Great War Stein was breaking the rules. She was particularly intrigued by the Cubists, an avant-garde group of artists who took three dimensional objects, broke them down into fragments, analyzed them, and reconstructed them onto the canvas. Stein, after meticulously studying Matisse and Picasso as men and artists, thought she would try, in a meta-artistic experiment, to write Cubists portraits of her two Cubist friends. Both men were admired and followed and scorned. (Something Stein could relate to.) These themes are omnipresent throughout their written portraits.
Matisse’s portrait begins with what could be considered an exposition on the misunderstood genius. It’s easiest to decipher the sentence in fragments:
One was quite certain that for a long part of his being one being living he had been trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing and then when he could not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing, when he had completely convinced himself that he would not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing he was really certain then that he was a great one and he certainly was a great one.
Translation: For a long time Matisse was misunderstood and questioned himself. After convincing himself that he was right, he arrived at the conclusion that he was great. (Sounds like the genius trajectory to me.)
But even self-proclaimed and society-proclaimed geniuses struggle and are hit or miss with their public:
One said of him that he was greatly expressing something struggling. Some said of him that he was not greatly expressing something struggling.
Translation: He was either ahead of his time or a hack, depending on whom you asked.
Much of the portrait includes different permutations of the words really, certain, great, expressing, suffering, something, telling, listening, wanting, living, and some with the occasional not thrown in to recognize that Matisse’s detractors did exist.
Pretty neat, huh? On to Picasso.
Stein had a much higher personal regard for Picasso, as evinced by the opening fragment in her portrait of him:
One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming.
Stein writes robustly of Picasso, and although she does mention his struggling, she tells us his art is an extension of himself:
One whom some were certainly following was one working and certainly was one bringing something out of himself then and was one who had been all of his living had been one having something coming out of him.
And this something coming out of him she later describes as:
a solid thing, a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a simple thing, a clear thing, a complicated thing, an interesting thing, a disturbing thing, a repellent thing, a very pretty thing.
But for all her admiration, Stein wished her good friend Pablo took a more serious approach to his studies:
He was not ever completely working.
Apparently even geniuses slacked. That’s good to know.About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.