Friday, February 3, 2012

Gertrude Stein -- Aquarian

"But the problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don't get young men standing up and saying, 'How can I combine career and family?'
Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein is probably best known to us as the rather formidable, rather masculine-looking woman of modernist Paris, one half of the Alice B. Toklas Brownie couple... sadly. In fact, she was a writer and artist in her own right, as well as someone who celebrated the work of other modern artists and nurtured their growth, often when no one else did.

She was born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children. When she was 3, her family moved to Europe living in Vienna, then Paris, before resettling in America in California, where she spent the bulk of her youth. She attended Radcliffe College and studied philosophy with William James, Henry's brother and the great American philosopher. Obviously, she was very, very intelligent. She had already experienced a connection to "salons" on her late teens. At Radcliffe, she experimented with what others called "automatic writing," although she did not; it was in the style later called stream-of-consciousness. She studied at Johns Hopkins for two years, left without a degree, and moved to Paris in 1903, where she spent the rest of her life.

During her first decade in Paris, she lived with her brother Leo, and they collected art: Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Renoir, etc. Between Leo and Gertrude, and their siblings, there was much Impressionst and post-Impressionist art bought and hung in Stein apartments.

27 Rue du Flerus was where the Steins lived--you can still walk by there and a little plaque commemorating it. It is just outside the Jardins du Luxembourg.

Additionally, Gertrude and Leo started inviting artists and others around to the apartment for evening salons. Eventually, Leo left Paris, and they divided the art collection. Alice B. Toklas moved into the Stein apartment in 1910, three years after having met Gertrude for the first time.

Between 1903 and 1913, Gertrude began writing seriously, her prose and poetry published for most part in small presses. It was not until 1933 that Stein published and became famous for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; people are much less familiar with her early works.

Stein and Toklas lived in Paris during WWI and in the French countryside during WWII. They worked for the war effort both times, and successfully avoided arrest. Stein continued to buy and sell modern art works, her collection now based more around Picasso and Juan Gris, while Leo had taken the Cezannes and Renoirs, for example.

Stein is also a writer of some of the earliest lesbian fiction from an American, much of which was not published until long after she wrote it. Her writing crossed genres and subject matter, her politics were often conservative (including remarks now controversial about Hitler and Franco), and her techniques avant-garde. She is "modern" in the extreme, even saying she had no interest as an artist in the audience. But she is present in all her work, reinventing basic technique and reinventing words, point-of-view, character, dialogue, etc. Like the artists who explored Cubism and other new forms of representing reality and the psychology of the human, Stein tries to reinvent language and its use for a modern world. The audience who follows her is small, and continues to be so.

But as one who bought, sold, and displayed the work of artists from Renoir to Juan Gris, opening them to the worl, who brought together poets, writers, painters, journalists, politicians, patrons, and photographers in Paris to discuss and produce art, as a conversationalist and a public figure, even a maternal artist spirit to many, Stein remains an influence on our own post-modern world. 

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