City Paper is not for tourists
“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” at the National Portrait Gallery
Oct. 14 to Jan. 22
One indelible image from last year’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery featured Gertrude Stein, looming implacably in her tweed skirt and flowered vest, in the foreground of a 1935 portrait by Cecil Beaton. A long twist of electrical wire wanders into the frame from the left-hand margin, underscoring Stein’s charged presence.
Standing meekly in the background is the love of Stein’s life, Alice B. Toklas. Stein famously performed an act of ventriloquism when she wrote her own partner’s “autobiography,” describing, with much name-dropping, Alice’s life with Stein in Paris.
The story that the book and Beaton’s photo suggest about the couple—a domineering giant and her submissive assistant—is somewhat true, but mostly not. “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stores” comes to NPG from the Jewish Museum in San Francisco with the intent of fleshing out that story. It will offer 100 artworks and 50 objects depicting the life and love of the famous writer, genius collector, and expatriate Jewish-American lesbian.
Stein was a cultural pot-stirrer and is remembered more for her critical eye and completely out-in-the-open lesbian life than for her writing. Prior to World War I, the art collection she amassed with her brother Leo featured paintings from Picasso, Gauguin, and Renoir, and their apartment drew Parisian avant-gardes. In post-war times, Stein brought American expat writers like Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Thornton Wilder into her orbit, and supposedly coined their “Lost Generation” tag.
Her own writing was ahead of its time and remains unreadable to many, with the exception of the gossipy Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The book made Stein a celebrity and prompted her return to the U.S. for a tour in the mid-1930s.
The show will feature photos by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and Carl van Vechten of Stein and Toklas at home in Paris and on the road in America. Also on display will be clothing, household items, and a smattering of paintings and drawings of Stein created during her lifetime and after her death.