In 1876, the wealthy railroad executive Daniel Stein took his progeny, Michael, Simon, Leo, Bertha and Gertrude, to Europe for three years. Afraid his children might be considered "uncultured" because of their California upbringing, he provided them with language and music lessons, making it clear that he expected them to rise above the uncouth wildness of their West Coast childhood. A black-and-white photograph taken in 1880 shows the Stein family as Daniel envisioned them, a scholarly patriarch and his wife, surrounded by his instrument- and book-wielding children.
One could say that Daniel needn't have worried. One could also say that his fear so shaped his children that they became over-achievers in the arena of culture, set up as they were with something to prove. And just in case there is anyone left out there stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the relevance of Gertrude Stein and her siblings to contemporary culture, this month there arrive not just one but two shows to settle the argument: Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
To cover even half the work in both shows in any real depth would be exhausting, but I will say that I gained much from starting at CJM, where the focus is on Gertrude's life through a multitude of images and portraits, as well as a collection of first-edition texts and magazines. The show is one of the most multi-media exhibits I've seen, which seems appropriate for a show about Gertrude, who was interested in so many mediums.
Visitors are greeted at the entrance to the exhibit by a cascading series of verbal and visual portraits: the headline from an April 1935 issue of the San Francisco Examiner: "Gertrude Stein arrives without a single comma," an audio recording of Gertrude reading from her quintessentially circular text on Pablo Picasso, and a short black-and-white film recording of Gertrude in her garden. She walks out with a hoe or rake and works a small patch of ground over, and then smiles at us. In the next shot, she sits her poodle, Basket, with his back to the camera and asks him to shake.
Narrated via its wall text, the show is divided into five "stories" or segments: Picturing Gertrude Stein (representations of Gertrude), Domestic Stein (her life with Alice), The Art of Friendship (mainly focused on her connection to the neo-romantics, a group of post-World War I artists), Celebrity Stein (her literary success and 1934/35 tour of the United States), and Legacies (contemporary work influenced by Stein). By the time I was through, I had a thorough appreciation of the historical and social environs that shaped (and were shaped by) Gertrude, not to mention the Steins' collection as a whole.
Seeing Gertrude Stein adds a social, almost anthropological, richness to The Steins Collect that is otherwise missing, although here, too, there is plenty of historical context. The press release for The Steins Collect -- a joint production of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris -- stresses that the show emphasizes the family's connection to the Bay Area, and there is even a separate room devoted to the family's presence here. The real draw, of course, is the tremendous aggregation of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well as other modern masters like Paul Cézanne, Henri Manguin, Juan Gris and Francis Picabia. The overly-bright colors and splotchy strokes of Matisse's Woman with a Hat, for example, are only a few feet from Picasso's muted Boy Leading a Horse, and only a few rooms from the startlingly abstracted series of faces that Gertrude tore out and framed from Picasso's Carnet 10, the sketchbook that led to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
The shows complement one another, each giving the other the kind of depth and detail that result from getting the right exposure in a photograph: textures become apparent and deep shadows show volume. Gertrude's eventual estrangement with her brother Leo, for instance, though mentioned in both shows, becomes even more poignant when one reads the handwritten copy of Leo's 1904 will at SFMOMA, in which he bequeaths nearly the entirety of his estate to Gertrude. Also similar to photography, certain details are blown out, or are perhaps overly considered, while still others become sharper in contrast to one another.
While Seeing Gertrude Stein discusses Gertrude's odd combination of bold yet conservative collecting habits and includes many examples, my appreciation for her vision grew considerably after walking through The Steins Collect and seeing the difference between the works she chose and the works championed by her brother Michael and his wife, Sarah. Gertrude appears to have been less afraid of the abstract, collapsing figure. If anything, she seemed to fear the more intimate style of portraiture that Sarah and Michael eventually gravitated toward, and broke from them altogether in her embrace of cubism.
Regardless of their differences in taste, it's obvious after seeing both shows that the Stein children did not just absorb intellectual and artistic culture; they shaped its trajectory. Give yourself several days to visit each show. You'll find yourself wanting to go back.
Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde run through September 6, 2011 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, respectively. For more information visit thecjm.org and sfmoma.org.