Contemporary Jewish Museum Opens Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories

The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories on view May 12 – September 6, 2011.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, is perhaps most famous as a modern writer and the creator of such oft-repeated phrases as “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” But Stein’s reach across the arts was extraordinary, extending well beyond literature to include collaborations in opera, ballet, and more, and her influence as a style-maker, art collector, and networker was considerable.

This spring, the Contemporary Jewish Museum debuts the first major museum exhibition to fully investigate this fascinating visual legacy and life of Stein. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is an art-filled biographical exploration of Stein’s identities as a literary pioneer, transatlantic modernist, Jewish-American expatriate, American celebrity, art collector, and muse to artists of several generations. The exhibition also features Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967), Stein’s life-long partner, and explores the aesthetics of dress, home décor, entertainment, and food that the two women created together.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is built upon exciting new scholarship by lead guest curator Professor Wanda M. Corn of Stanford University and associate curator Professor Tirza True Latimer of the California College of Arts and is jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

“This exhibition offers a fascinating, new look at one of the most influential Jewish women of the twentieth century whose reach across the arts continues today,” says Connie Wolf, Director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “We are delighted to present this exhibition that draws on exciting new research and scholarship by our guest curators, who have uncovered and examined the many sides of Stein.”

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1874 and raised in Oakland, California in an upper middle-class Jewish family, Stein left America for France in 1903 at the age of 29. Like James McNeill Whistler and Henry James, her American predecessors, Stein became an expatriate, living in France until her death in 1946. From 1908 onwards, Stein lived openly with Toklas.

Stein was a cultural networker, bringing creative people and friends together—such as Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway, but also key members of a cosmopolitan gay and lesbian elite—at legendary salons held in her homes. Her originality as a thinker, along with her interdisciplinary approach to projects in dance, music, and theater continue to inspire artists today. As an inventor of modernist literature, she wrote novels, poems, journal essays, literary and art theory, opera libretti, plays, memoirs, and word portraits.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories features more than 100 artifacts and art works by artists from across Europe and the United States. It includes paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, and artist’s gifts to Stein, as well as items from her custom-designed wardrobe, manuscripts, books, periodicals, letters, journals, and personal belongings.

The galleries will also include media presentations to render a more complete picture of this complex icon of the twentieth-century. One loop will present a montage of photographs from throughout her life; another features footage from her operas and ballet; and one examines Stein’s life during the war. An interactive, custom-made iPad app allows visitors the opportunity to explore images, press, and other material from Stein’s lecture tour across America in 1934-35. On another iPad app, visitors can listen to Stein reading from her work while following along with the text.

This wealth of archival and artistic material illuminates Stein through five distinct stories that offer multiple ways of looking at or “seeing” Stein. Notably, these five stories do not repeat what is well known—Stein’s years as a salonière and collector of Picasso and Matisse in the years before World War I—but instead focus on Stein from 1915-46 when she became recognized as a major writer, collected the works of the neoromantics, and formed a new international circle of young friends that she called her “second family.”

“This exhibition was born the day it dawned on me that the collection of papers and memorabilia Stein and Toklas left behind was peculiarly large and diverse,” says Corn. “Stein clearly wanted all aspects of her extraordinary life to be known, and her archives include not just letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and the usual make-up of a writer’s life but bills from the couturier Pierre Balmain, handmade gifts from Picasso, snapshots, clothes, jewelry, and even cocktail napkins and wall paper samples. These images and objects, along with the many works of art featuring Stein and Toklas, seemed to be begging to tell their stories.”

Story One, Picturing Gertrude
Images of Stein changed considerably over the decades, from her Gibson Girl “New Woman” look during her student days, to her reinvention as a Bohemian priestess in Paris at the turn of the century, to her matronly look after World War I and her masculine dress in waistcoats after she cut her hair in 1926. As she transformed herself, she became one of the most painted, sculpted and photographed women of the twentieth-century. The first story presents portraits of Stein from her childhood to maturity and includes works by Felix Vallotton, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Carl Van Vechten, Jacques Lipchitz, Jo Davidson and others.

Story Two, Domestic Stein
This section delves into the relationship between Gertrude Stein and her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas and how they fashioned a distinctive lifestyle and domestic life for themselves in Paris and later at their home in the South of France. Together they shaped an eccentric visual aesthetic as a couple through their home décor, food, and dress.

This will be the first exhibition to give Toklas a major place in Stein’s life, demonstrating that there was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude. “You might say Toklas—who edited and typed Stein’s manuscripts, managed her social and professional life, groomed her appearance, created her domestic settings, and archived her papers—invented the Stein we have come to know,” says associate curator Tirza True Latimer. “In turn, Stein, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, invented Toklas.”

Story Three, The Art of Friendship
The wide circle of visual artists Stein and Toklas befriended included not just famous figures, such as Matisse and Picasso, but also, after World War I, a less well-known international set of younger male artists, writers, and composers—most of them gay—who adopted Stein as a figurehead, mentor, mother, patron, and model. While achieving her own fame, Stein had the talent and instincts to champion others such as Carl Van Vechten, Pavel Tchelitchew, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Rose who made major contributions to American and European culture.

Stein collaborated with many of her acquaintances, most notably in opera and ballet. She wrote the opera libretti for Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, produced in collaboration with the composer Virgil Thompson. She also collaborated on A Wedding Bouquet, a ballet with music and décor by Sir Gerald Berners and choreography by Frederick Ashton. These three ventures succeeded spectacularly and shaped her career and legacy in important ways.

Story Four, Celebrity Stein
Three events gave Stein a popular name and face in the United States: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a best seller; the opera Four Saints in Three Acts was a Broadway sensation; and, in 1934-35, Stein toured her native United States for seven months of public lectures. It was Stein’s first visit in 30 years and Toklas accompanied her. From the moment the women arrived in New York harbor, the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs that Stein had ever elicited abroad. It was a triumphant homecoming and Stein became America’s most famous expatriate. She no longer spoke “as a ghost” from another country as one journalist put it, “but as a person with a voice.”

A subsection of this story investigates Stein’s relationship to both World Wars. During World War I, when she and Toklas were active patriots, distributing Red Cross supplies throughout France; in World War II, their decision to stay in Nazi-occupied France is more controversial, inextricable from her large ego and her ability to suppress her Jewish identity.

Story Five, Legacies
Gertrude Stein’s afterlife far exceeds the realms of art history and literature. She survives in visual work destined for broad audiences, including caricatures, cartoons, and pop art initiatives that embroider her legend and celebrate her famously magnetic personality. The openness with which she lived as a lesbian and the way her work coupled homoeroticism with modernist aesthetics has made her an icon of queer culture, inspiring tributes by contemporary artists. The fifth story probes the deep influence Stein has had on important American artists after her death and includes works by Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Red Grooms, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass and many others.

The exhibition will be presented at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. after its premiere at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and will be on view there from October 14, 2011 through January 22, 2012.

A fully illustrated and scholarly exhibition catalogue edited by Professor Corn and published by the University of California Press will be available through the Museum’s gift store and includes major contributions by Dr. Corn and Dr. Latimer.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories has been jointly organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Major support for the exhibition, publication and related programs has been received through a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional support for the exhibition’s national tour has been provided by E*TRADE.

Generous support for the exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum has been provided by an Anonymous Donor; Osterweis Capital Management; Jim Joseph Foundation; the Leavitt Family; Michael and Sue Steinberg; Randee and Joe Seiger; Joyce Linker; Seisel Maibach; and Dorothy R. Saxe.

The Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead supporters of the 2010/2011 exhibition season at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Generous support for the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has been provided by the Abraham & Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows; Ella Foshay; Catherine V. Dawson; Vicki and Roger Sant; Grace Bender; Johnnie Moore; and Michelle Smith.

Essential support for the publication has been provided by Fred Levin & Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum during the same time period as the exhibition The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from May 21 through September 6, 2011. The Steins Collect reunites the unparalleled modern art collections of Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael Stein, and Michael’s wife, Sarah Stein. Jointly organized by SFMOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, this major touring exhibition gathers approximately 200 iconic paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and illustrated books by not only Matisse and Picasso, which form the core of this presentation, but also by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-August Renoir, among many others. The Steins Collect will travel to Paris and then New York after its premiere at SFMOMA.

Image: Bachrach Studio, Gertrude Stein, c. 1903, Photograph drymounted on board. Courtesy of the Therese Erhman Papers, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

About the Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the 21st century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations, who are the lead supporters of the 2010/11 exhibition season. Additional major support is provided by the Jim Joseph Foundation; The Wallace Foundation; Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropic Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Bank of America; Institute of Museum and Library Services; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; The Hearst Foundations; Terra Foundation for American Art; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Osterweis Capital Management; The Skirball Foundation; Target; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; and Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation’s Endowment Fund. The Museum also receives major support from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

For more information about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit the Museum’s website

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