Friday, May 20, 2022

Gertrude Stein & Company: The First Collectors Of Modern Art

The first museum of modern art was literally a shoebox. A tiny apartment and, in the beginning, without electricity at number 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. It was not uncommon for visitors to light matches to get a better view of the canvases that completely covered the walls.

That was the only place in the world where, during the first decade of the 20th century, works by Picasso or Matisse could be contemplated together. Avant-garde works so fresh from the artists’ studios that no one had yet become aware of their avant-gardism. Nobody except the lady of the house, the American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who coined the phrase “I want to be historical”.

On Saturday afternoons the Stein’s living room was open. Gertrude, imposing, received the guests dressed in a brown corduroy robe and seated on her particular throne, a Renaissance chair from which her legs dangled. Her brother Leo, standing, was in charge of guiding the visitors through the labyrinth. The Cézannes -foundational pieces of the collection- are framed: this is because they are considered perfect, definitive works. Pay attention, please, to the dining room doors, papered with Picasso sketches….

Gertrude Stein Poses Next To An Original Picasso

Gertrude became a mythical, almost mythological figure of the rive gauche, the southern half of the city. If, according to Hemingway, she was “of solid architecture like a peasant woman”, a sculptor imagined her as a seated Buddha and a painter drew her like Caesar with an orb in his hand.

She loved herself above all things and was endowed with a personality of a thousand devils, but she had a criterion and defended it to the last consequences. Gertrude, for example, believed wholeheartedly in individual freedom and applied herself to it: it would take decades for the twentieth century to see a homosexual relationship as normalized as hers with Alice B. Toklas.

Whoever wanted to buy art in Paris first visited the little flat on rue de Fleurus. La Stein made and broke careers depending on what she bought. The physical location of an artist on the walls was also crucial. The best works were at eye level. The worst, in her particular salon des refusés, a room where she banished painters she had lost interest in.

The truth is that, although Gertrude practiced self-promotion like no one else and became the most famous of the clan, her brothers Michael and Leo were also key figures in the impulse of avant-garde art.

The Stein brothers could not be considered millionaires, but they did inherit a good penny in real estate investments with which to finance their dreams. Leo, an aspiring painter, was, much to Gertrude’s regret, the first to move to Paris (in 1902) and become passionate about art collecting. Gertrude arrived a year later in the apartment, where Alice, his mistress, would also end up moving in.

Cézanne was the painter who inaugurated the walls of rue de Fleurus, but Post-Impressionism was yesterday’s thing. The first avant-garde painting to enter the door was Matisse’s La femme au chapeau, the canvas that, with its wild colors, had caused laughter at the 1905 Salon d’Automne.

Artistic modernity began with a rivalry, that of Matisse and Picasso, and the Steins were practically the godfathers of the duel. Gertrude became the champion of the Spaniard. Michael, who took up residence around the corner from his sister’s apartment, in the Frenchman’s apartment.

The writer was a great friend of the ‘Malagueño’ and came to treasure a hundred works, such as Nu à la serviette; the portrait of herself, which almost heralds the imminent Cubism; and the self-portrait of him, who painted a black eye, just as he had seen in a Cézanne that the Stein’s owned.

Gertrude Stein with then-baby Jack Hemingway, son of American novelist Ernest Hemingway

When Picasso began his Cubist phase, Gertrude became even more passionate about his work, and Leo, the brother with whom she shared an apartment and art collection, became disenchanted. In fact, one of the several reasons that contributed to his leaving rue de Fleurus and never speaking to the writer again was jealousy over the intimate relationship between her and Picasso.

Gertrude was one of the pioneers of experimental literature (hers is the verse “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”), and she found similarities with Cubism. For example, in a game of multiple faces and reflections, she wrote her autobiography as the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, i.e., her lover, who spoke of Gertrude in the third person.

This volume, published in 1933, left many artists scalded, damaged or ignored. The French cubist Georges Braque, for example, was shocked to read: “Gertrude always said that Cubism is a typically Spanish conception, and that only Spaniards can be Cubists, and that the only true Cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris [whom she also collected]”.

In 1913, Leo left the apartment and took part of the collection with him. That was a period, almost a period. After World War II, Gertrude continued to acquire some paintings, but without the impetus of yesteryear. Her literary career was about to take off, and the most famous occupants of her living room would also become writers, such as Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald.