A feminist's question: What was Gertrude Stein really about?

"Seeing Gertrude Stein' in San Francisco

5 minute read
San Francisco's modest Contemporary Jewish Museum has devoted its first floor to a show of heartbreaking gouaches by a young Jewish painter, Charlotte Salomon, who did not survive the Nazis.

Let me wipe away a tear and go upstairs to Gertrude Stein.

Say you are a plainfaced rather chubby and then tubby lesbian girl whose family moved from Pittsburgh to Oakland on father's fortune then to Europe and back to Oakland and you were the only girl among brothers in a conservative post-Victorian Jewish family you might write without punctuation like this.

If you were Gertrude Stein. Who has fascinated me all my life. Not that I liked her.

Was she a good writer or just one little pop in the popcorn pan? God knows she popped plenty of writers and painters and performers into fame at her Paris salons. Herself was famous for her rose rose rose yet I, lazy girl that I was— am— know little about her except that. If you were born after 1980 you probably don't know anything about her.

Writing outside the sentence

I could never get through a whole page of Stein's writing, which was her point. Screw conventions! She wrote outside the sentence the way Picasso broke up visual images to paint a brutality we had not faced. And have continued to ignore through every generation's wars.

For children of the Greatest Generation like me— or maybe your grandparents— Gertrude Stein was and is a monument to awakening the 20th Century consciousness. She brought the first Picassos. She was godmother to Hemingway's son.

But why is she not a feminist icon? My proto-feminist mother was never enthusiastic about her writing. I don't think Mother was worried I would become a lesbian, because my enthusiasm for boys made itself apparent early on. And my mother, a failed artist, would have loved a paint-stinky atelier on the Left Bank and a Pernod at Deux Magots. From Austen to Wolfe, she read all women writers, and everyone else, and loved them. But she did not love Gertrude Stein.

Me neither.

Ultimate bitch

If I'm a complete feminist, why do I not love her in spite of that stiff, self-conscious style? Something. Surfing past a book review about Alice B. Toklas— don't recall what title— I learned that when Stein died in 1946 she left her faithful, lifelong companion nothing. Not one painting! Toklas died penniless and alone.

What a bitch. Was that the reason my mother was so cool?

Annoyed, I went to the exhibit, "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," up now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, to see what the big deal about her was.

Dark photographs of grim-faced Stein and mousey Toklas standing right behind her, pictures out of an attic trunk. Stein is as plain as I remember from the dust jackets of her many, many books. In fact, she becomes downright unpleasant. Like my mother in her last years, actually, Stein hid her fat under heavy, flowing robes. Over time her hair shorter and shorter. By the end she looks exactly like a pope.

No use for women

My irritation mounted as I spent an hour spent peering at these photos, drawings, small paintings, reading ever more carefully the curator's notes. Except for great artists like Picasso and Matisse, Stein preferred gay men as friends, not other women, not even gay women. Well then, she wouldn't ask me to her salons. Damn. An unpleasant woman, but I'd have loved an invite anyway.

By the 1930s Stein had made painters and writers, photographers and musicians so famous she couldn't afford to buy their work. Other collectors would follow in her footsteps between the wars. It was a lovely life in Paris and a summer house she and Alice rented in the south of France. Then came Hitler.

As I entered the last alcove of this beautifully mounted exhibit, reading all the curatorial notes ever more carefully, I wondered how Stein's fabulous art collection survived the Nazi confiscation of Jewish art. Descendants are still chasing what the Germans stole. Where was Gertrude Stein during World War II, anyway?

I pounced on one of the final notes: Stein lived all through the war in the south of France, right under the nose of the Vichy government, protected by a friend whom the Germans made the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale. After the liberation, this friend, Bernard Fey, got a life sentence at hard labor for collaborating with the Nazis.

A Nobel for Hitler?

Worser and worser: in 1938 Stein nominated Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, I cannot stand this woman! She was rich, or she began life rich. She was plain as a troll and she wrote awful stuff that many people (not all) raved about. She was mean to Alice and she betrayed her Jewish race. No wonder I don't like her.

Yet and yet. Gertrude Stein encouraged the greatest art of the 20th Century, a feast that nourishes us still. Then she saved it.

This was enough. Like my mother, I forgive her everything.♦

To read responses, click here and here.

What, When, Where

"Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories.†Through September 6, 2011 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St. San Francisco, Calif. www.thecjm.org/index.php.

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