The Summer of Gertrude Stein

It started in May. As I walked the sidewalks near my office on Mission and Third, mysterious hand-lettered cardboard signs began to appear at the intersections, taped to the walls, reading: “Gertrude Stein was here.” The signs were homemade enough to draw attention, up one day, gone the next. And then the sign would show up at another intersection, an anonymous announcement to the walking audience.

The signs were a prelude to the coming convergence of Gertrude Stein events this summer. I’ve attended three so far: a Woody Allen movie, a world class exhibition of the arts collected by the Stein family at MOMA, and a complimentary retrospective installation about Gertrude herself at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Stein was Jewish, after all. And a lesbian. For more than one generation, Stein (and to a lesser extent, her partner, Alice Toklas) were the ONLY known lesbians.

I saw the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, with a new friend in San Francisco at the Kabuki cinema. (Yes, I have a new friend, finally!) It was a lovely evening and a lovely film. I’m not normally a Woody Allen fan, but I swear he gets better with age. And thank god, he has finally taken himself out of the romantic lead (replaced in Midnight by Owen Wilson who did a spot on Allen imitation, under Allen’s direction I’m sure.) Kathy Bates was brilliantly cast as Stein.

The film gave me a taste of Stein and her role in the arts in early 20th century Paris. Her patronage and salons are given great credit by today’s art historians for the rise of modern art (as I learned in the MOMA exhibit).

After seeing the film, I purchased a joint ticket for both museum exhibits through an LGBT event offered by MOMA called “An Evening in Gay Paris.”

The even included entrance to two museum exhibits, just a few blocks apart:


This is truly the summer of Gertrude Stein in San Francisco. The girl would have loved it. You can almost feel her walking in the museum among the many likenesses of herself (paintings, drawing, photographs, bronze busts, sculptures, and even video), gloating with ego and glee. Whispering in your ear, “Wasn’t I great!?” Gertrude is finally getting the attention I suppose she deserves. Still I am mystified by her greatness.

As a lesbian, I have never been impressed by Stein. Let’s face it – the woman was ugly. And yet she was eager to pose for artists who were just as eager to paint or sculpt her likeness. In most of them, she resembles a hulking toad or Hitchcock in drag. I have always found Stein as the visual representation of a lesbian to be an embarrassment.

In the photos of Stein and Toklas, Toklas stands dutifully in the background, subservient, the little wife. I got the feeling that Stein was definitely controlling in the relationship. Think about it….Stein even wrote Alice’s autobiography for her. It was Stein’s biggest seller, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.”

The woman had an ego that rivaled and overshadowed most men’s – both exhibits were just oozing with it. She wanted to be famous, she wanted to be known as an artist (deserved or not), and she wanted to leave a legacy that would not be forgotten.

So, why do we remember Gertrude Stein?

  • She was an outspoken and influential art collector.
  • She was creative on a number of fronts – as an author, a painter,   a co-writer of plays and operas. She excelled at none of these, but her efforts were new and different in a way that established her voice and drew attention.
  • She mentored young artists into successful ones (and bought their paintings while they were still starving – Picasso, Matisse).
  • She was openly gay in a time when that was impossible.

In short, Gertrude Stein was an original, that rarest of things, especially in people.

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