Gertrude Stein celebrated at two Washington DC museums

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Media captionGertrude Stein

Why do we care about Gertrude Stein? Two exhibits in Washington DC show that her influence extends far beyond the Jazz Age.

I've often wondered whether approaching a subject from a standpoint of total ignorance sharpens my investigative powers, or whether it simply leads to inevitable embarrassment from which I'll never recover.

That thought was uppermost when the National Portrait Gallery announced the opening of an exhibition on Gertrude Stein.

Of course I'd heard of her - wasn't she that famous feminist who burned her bra in the 1960s? - but beyond that I really had no idea who she actually was.

A quick read of the press release revealed five fun facts:

  1. She died in 1946, so she wasn't that other woman I was thinking of
  2. She knew a lot of famous artists who liked to paint her
  3. She wrote books that nobody understands
  4. She lived with a woman called Alice B Toklas
  5. For some reason, everybody is still fascinated by her

To help fill the considerable gaps in my knowledge, the gallery kindly sent me the magnificently illustrated 400-page book that accompanies the exhibition and set up a telephone interview with Wanda Corn, a retired Stanford University professor who has spent more than 10 years researching and putting the show together.

"So," I asked blithely. "Why do we care about Gertrude Stein? Why is she suddenly popular?"

To her credit, Wanda didn't hang up - but there was a pause.


Image caption Gertrude Stein by Jo Davison, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

She patiently explained that Gertrude Stein was one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th Century. She helped shape the careers of artists such as Picasso and Matisse and was also a literary genius in her own right. Wanda also suggested I see the new Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris.

The film, if you haven't seen it, is about a jaded writer engaged to be married to a ghastly woman who doesn't understand his creative ambitions. They're in Paris to meet her equally ghastly parents and bump into some even more ghastly friends.

While she goes partying, the hero - played by Owen Wilson - walks the streets of Paris in the hope of finding inspiration. At midnight he is miraculously transported back in time to the 1920s and meets Gertrude Stein, played by Kathy Bates, who reads his manuscript and gives him a few tips.

That was apparently the sort of thing she did in real life, so thanks to Hollywood, a picture of Stein was beginning to form. But any notion that the jovial Ms Bates was the unabridged embodiment of Gertie was quickly dispelled the moment I stepped into the National Portrait Gallery.

Female Warhol

How people saw Stein and how she presented herself is one of the themes of the exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. The first example I encountered was an extraordinary sculpture by Jo Davidson of Stein sitting cross legged and slightly hunched. The sheer size of it lends power and substance - a monument to a monumental woman. She looks like a cross between a Buddha and a troll guarding a bridge.

Image caption Marsden Hartley's take on Stein as a teacup on display at the National Portrait Gallery

A large oil painting by Felix Edouart Vallotton has her looking monkish, her vast bulk draped in a brown robe with little evidence of any supporting under-garments (quite shocking in those days) and an inscrutable expression on her broad, flat-planed features.

And then there's Stein as a teacup, one of my favourites, painted by Marsden Hartley in 1916. According to Wanda, Stein encouraged artists to capture her essence rather than strive for an accurate representation of how she looked, and this painting symbolizes her salons where she and Alice served tea to their famous friends and visitors and showed off their collection of modern art.

Many artists painted her in the hope that she would hang their portraits in her home and make them part of her of her influential collection. It was a symbiotic relationship, as Stein recognised the importance of image-making in developing her own public persona. Although she never considered photography an art form, she was nevertheless happy to be photographed.

"She did appreciate the way in which media can create a celebrity - and she understood that very early on in the 1920s and 30s," said Wanda. "Perhaps no other artist until Andy Warhol used it to so great advantage."

'Obscure and incomprehensible'

None of that really explains why she is a continuing source of inspiration for artists today. For that, you have to look at her writing.

As well as influencing the development of modern art movements and popular taste, Stein is also hailed as the founder of literary modernism. Her experiments with language are often difficult to read, drawing comparisons with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but her radical rethinking of sentence construction and repetitive, rhythmic style have given literature some memorable quotations.

Two of the best known are, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," and "When this you see remember me."

"All of us know them, even if we might not know that she said them," said Wanda. "Even in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, artists knew who she was and were channeling her as a muse to make works of art based on some of the things that she had written. Today there's a whole new younger generation that is rethinking Stein and keeping her alive."

The Stanford in Washington Gallery is doing just that with a separate exhibition - Insight and Identity - featuring artists who've studied Stein for years.

Anne Stokes, one of the organisers, says they find Stein appealing and such a rich source of inspiration precisely because her writing is so obscure and incomprehensible - rather like contemporary art itself.

Image caption Felix Edouart Vallotton's painting of Stein, now at the National Gallery in Washington, DC

My mother would have described that as the blind leading the blind.

"With contemporary art you have to keep looking," said Ms Stokes. "And with Stein, you have to keep reading."

Terry Berlier, an internationally recognised artist from California, put it another way: "It doesn't conform to any 'right' way of writing."

Inspired by Stein's novella, Many Many Women, Ms Berlier used recordings of the text to create a sound sculpture, Human Tuning Fork #4, which is part of the Stanford exhibition.

"It resonated with me at the time when I was questioning everything in the world and what I was going through," said Ms Berlier, who also identified with Stein's sexuality and her openly gay relationship with Alice. "At first the words seem like complete gibberish, but then they start to becoming immersing."

That sums up neatly how I now feel about Gertrude Stein. From my initial standpoint of complete ignorance I have embarked on a whole new journey with many, many different avenues to explore - and that, I think, is what the best art adventures should be.