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Reviewed by:
  • Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories
  • Linda Simon (bio)
Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. 416 pp. ISBN 978-0520270022, $45.00.

Gertrude Stein’s reputation as a modernist comes as much from her prescience as a collector as from her literary experiments. At the center of a flourishing Parisian art community before and between the two world wars, Stein counted among her friends and collaborators some of the most famous artists of her time: Picasso and Matisse, most notably, and scores more that included [End Page 826] Juan Gris, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sir Francis Rose, and Pavel Tchelitchew. In 1970, New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition, Four Americans in Paris, which drew from her collections and those of her brothers, Michael and Leo, and sister-in-law, Sarah. Now, more than forty years later, Stein’s connections to art once again have been celebrated, this time (May to September 2011) in San Francisco, by two major exhibitions: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, a companion show, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Drawing upon sources from the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian and archives at Yale, the University of Texas, and the University of California, Seeing Gertrude Stein assembled more than two hundred portraits, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, drawings, and memorabilia to create a wide-ranging exploration of Stein’s visual world.

Co-curators Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History at Stanford, and Tirza True Latimer, Professor of Visual and Cultural Studies at California College of the Arts, organized the exhibition into five over-lapping and intersecting stories that form the sections of this beautifully produced catalogue. Each section contains illuminating essays, thirty in all, by Corn or Latimer, who write that their “initial goal was to animate Stein’s visual archive, to make it tell some new stories” (7). That goal is amply fulfilled; the stories cohere into more than a pictorial biography to reveal Stein’s intellectual and aesthetic interest in perception, and her ongoing reinvention of her personal environment and public image. Drawing upon the most recent scholarship in literary and cultural studies, and bringing a fresh critical perspective from their disciplines of art history and visual studies, Corn and Latimer offer a vibrant, insightful consideration of Stein’s identity as a writer, woman, and arbiter of the arts.

The first section, “Picturing Gertrude,” depicts portraits of Stein in paint, bronze, and photographs from the time she sat as a girl for her uncle David Bachrach, founder of a prestigious Baltimore photography studio, until her death in 1946. Included are Picasso’s indelible 1906 painting; Alvin Langdon Coburn’s famous gum platinum print of a mountainous young Stein, taken in 1913; a group photograph of Stein and her embryology class from 1897; and many portraits—by Jo Davidson, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Carl Van Vechten—that no doubt will be familiar to readers of Stein biographies. Corn draws our attention to the feminized image of Stein—sensuous, dressed in flowing robes, with smooth, flawless skin—created by such artists as photographer Henri Manuel and sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. That image changed dramatically after 1926, when Stein cut her hair and adopted distinctly masculine [End Page 827] dress, giving artists “license to theatricalize her maleness and make portraits of a man-woman rather than, as earlier, of a woman who did not act like one” (53). With Toklas portrayed in “heels, hyper-feminized dresses, and flamboyant hats,” the two women, Corn asserts, “conspicuously fashioned themselves as husband and wife” (51).

Certainly they played out those gender roles in their homes, where Toklas took charge of decorating, cooking, gardening, and shopping. “Domestic Stein” gives us a glimpse of the Stein-Toklas household, including some candid photographs with friends and a regal-looking Basket. The two women kept albums of snapshots, many taken by Stein, who was not interested in photographs as an art form, but rather as visual evidence of friendships and experiences. There was no lack of...