Category Archives: Research

MUSEUM CRAWLING IN SEARCH OF GERTRUDE STEIN

Picasso's Stein

Museums are one of the most vivid and fruitful ways for me to do research. I’ve visited more museums than I can count across the country, in Europe and, especially, in the American west.  Here I find nuances of the local lifestyle, culture and the stories of area personalities, whether famous, infamous or simple folk. Museums have wealth in their archives and curators and docents are unerringly happy to talk of their collections. I recently went museum crawling with one of my favorite fellow travelers, Barbara.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are running two very special exhibits: Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde. The Five Stories reflect on aspects of her life: her public persona, lifestyle, relationships, her tour of the US in 1935-36 and life in France during WWII.

Based on material in both settings, I would guess that Stein had to have been one of the most drawn, painted and photographed women of the first half of the twentieth century. She sat for Picasso 80-90 times in 1904-05 for his most famous portrait of her, only to have him wipe out the face, return to Spain and come back in 1906 to paint from memory. Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray photographed her; Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Anderson, and others she dubbed “the Lost Generation” filled her salons.

Stein’s evolution in appearance follows changes in her haircut from the Buddha bun atop her head to the “Butch” cut of her later years, from her thinner self to the rotund. Alice B. Toklas, her lover/companion/wife of forty years, was also a writer and a seamstress. Alice worked carefully to modify Stein’s look, taking her from corduroy to velvets, from schoolmarm to handsome and business-like in skirts, blouses and gorgeous vests.

Alice and Gertrude at home

Alice ran the household, shopped and cooked, typed Gertrude’s brief daily output of words. Many fawned over Gertrude but Alice was always near, in a chair opposite, in the doorway, sitting at her embroidery screen, preparing food for guests. Stories are told in both exhibits of their salons, originally shared with the Stein brothers. Here, luminaries of the arts gathered, ate, drank and, undoubtedly, argued.

With brothers Leo and Michael and his wife Sarah, the Steins amassed a glorious collection consisting of the post-impressionists, cubists and assorted others. Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, Gris, Gauguin hung on their walls. Much of the original collection has been brought under one roof at MOMA for the first time in decades. It is an amazing review of early twentieth century art.

Much is also minimized or overlooked in the exhibits. The couple remained in France throughout both world wars, with protection from a Vichy leader during WWII. Why would the Nazis permit a Jewish American lesbian couple to live peacefully in the French countryside except for political kinship? Gertrude was described as a sectarian Jewess. I wish the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibit had explored her beliefs and motivations more thoroughly. My impression is that she was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer despite her efforts to aid the injured in World War I.

Then, too, there was the separation from Leo in 1914 after nearly ten years of compatibility in their joint living and collecting arrangements. Alice appeared on the scene in 1905 but it was 1910 before she moved in. Was the triangulated household too uncomfortable or was Leo truly jealous of his sister’s rising star among Parisians and ex-pats alike?

It is left to us to seek truth in Stein’s writing, if the words are there. Several exhibits bring us the sound of her voice, in sing-song and hypnotic repetitious renderings of her poems and fiction. I’ll delve, again, into The Autobiography of Alice. B. Toklas and writings about her. In seeking out information, I came across an illuminating article by Janet Malcom, one of Stein’s biographers, in an on-line copy of The New Yorker from 2003.  Gertrude Stein’s War: The Years in Occupied France. It can be found at: http://newyorker.com/archive/2003/06/02/03060fa_fact2

The article is a very intriguing examination of the questions I had as I wandered the exhibits, including questions about her “innovative” writing which was minimalist, often confusing and difficult to read. Malcom shares a discovery by Stein experts about Alice’s strong influence on Stein’s writing, especially in The Making of Americans (1925.)

A self-proclaimed genius, Gertrude Stein’s gift was in assembling talent at her side, mostly young gay men, encouraging many and writing-off others. Few friends remained so for long periods.

If you are in the Bay Area, I encourage you to explore the museums and this icon of American and French social history.

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FROM MY READING CHAIR

THE TELLING OF LIVES, PART III 

Previously in this series, I have explored biography and autobiography as ways in The Telling of Lives.  Now, I want to turn your attention to fictional autobiography.

Clara Estby, the real-life protagonist in Jane Kirkpatrick’s The Daughter’s Walk, had no understanding of her mother’s farfetched idea to walk across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize that would save the family farm near Spokane. Helga was a very determined Norwegian immigrant, a believer in women’s right to vote and even to wear the “reform/bicycle dress” that the backers of the contest were putting forth. In near financial ruin after her husband’s disabling accident, the family was in desperate straits. 

In May 1896, mother and daughter set off on a journey of 3500 miles, a multitude of hardships and some kindnesses along the way. Their destination was New York City by December 13. Their route went along railroad tracks. It was to be a test of feminine stamina. It was also seen by Helga as a means to protect Clara from making a mistake in falling for the son of her rich employer. Clara’s plans for college and a life different from the farm literally fell by the wayside. 

The story draws on truth from the many newspaper accounts and records of the day, on interviews with descendants and on interpretation or speculation from those facts to fill in the unknown parts of the story. Two weeks late at their December arrival and losing the challenge, mother and daughter are left to make their way back home nearly penniless. On arrival, desperation greets them. Two of the younger children have died and the family is in quarantine. Helga collapses and Kirkpatrick catches the emotions of grief eloquently and succinctly:

“Grief has many siblings. Anger, isolation, sadness, guilt, and, yes, distraction, avoidance, pretense. I met them all in the weeks that followed. So did our family.”

 Feeling detached from the only family she has known, Clara leaves, assumes another name and is befriended by two older women. They offer her employment and the fulfillment of her college dreams. The women are furriers and have many contacts in New York as well as overseas. As Clara is drawn into the business, she is also drawn to the company’s salesman. Clara moves from bookkeeper to business owner/manager; she seldom turns away from a challenge, including learning to trap and going out by herself into the wintery woods.

Jane Kirkpatrick writes strongly of human relationships in the characters she depicts. The author shows us the attitudes, values and mannerisms of her characters:

            “Design doesn’t interest me,” I said.

            “To humor you: where would we trap?” Franklin asked. He wasn’t scowling now. He  looked more curious, surprised even.

             “I’d buy land. The right kind of land, where I’d trap.”

            “It’s not women’s work. You’re already thin as spaghetti,” Louise said.

             Franklin shook his head.

            “Women’s work is defined by women doing it,” I said.

 

The issue of Clara’s estrangement from her family is woven throughout the story and explains or accounts for twenty years of silence. This, too, is a source of grief and it seems Clara relies on relentless work to stave off its “siblings.” Reconciliation eventually occurs.

A talented writer like Jane Kirkpatrick takes the tiniest thread of a story and weaves it into a whole with fact and fiction.

* * *

At her website, Susan Vreeland writes on the origin of her book The Forest Lover, a biographic novel of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Vreeland poses and answers a question: “Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person’s life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life.”   

Do you agree with Vreeland? 

Do you have a preference in form?

WINTER IN MOAB

 With some writers, journaling is left to others. For many of us, it is a place to record feelings, sensations, impressions, thoughts and experiences.  For me, it is one of those ways I have of sorting out writing dilemmas, plot or character problems or simply dumping my frustration of whatever has grabbed me and put my self-doubt to work. It is not unusual for some of those pieces, or parts of them, to reappear in a novel or poem at a later date. Here’s a wintry bit where that process may be apparent.

 WINTER IN MOAB

 Back from a wild trip to California by January 10, we felt we had truly come home. Perhaps it is the stony silence of our monolithic surroundings, or the snowy easing of a white rug on the ground, or the soundless parade of stately mule deer across our field; whatever speaks to us here does so profoundly.

 And, then, the Canadian Geese arrived. First, one seated himself in the middle of the field on a crisp Monday morning. He reached his long neck all around to graze and caused us to think perhaps he was maimed and lost from the gaggle.  Three days later, three more geese arrived. And then, twenty, forty, seventy and, finally, over a hundred who moved between our field, neighboring fields and the ponds in our park. They court and dance, grovel and stand watch, feed and sleep. Driving along the Colorado River as they come and go in our field, we’ve watched them spread out in their majestic V’s.  Walking up toward Moab Rim one day, I listened as their voices bounced off the walls of the river corridor. I listen for them in the morning and awake with a smile.

 I’ve known that a group of poets and writers here meet periodically but I’ve been shy to invade their sessions, not knowing how long I’d be around.  Trust, necessary to sharing your creativity, usually takes cultivation, testing and daring.  I wasn’t very willing to just jump in.  Until I saw the notice of a fiction writing class at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center, due to run until March. Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel was to guide our work. I jumped in. Susan, the instructor, and four other students were at varying stages of writerly development and it is sweet for we all value the process and are sharing our efforts. When the class ends, we plan to run on as a critique group-something I’ve missed in our troubadour life.

 Late in January, we hiked into Moonflower Canyon, set back from the Colorado which was running red. Petroglyphs with a triangular man, geometrics and assorted wild sheep and deer line the rock to the right. Notched tree limbs have been squeezed into the narrow crevices to the left of them to help lithe, slim ancestors of the Ute and Navajo to climb. And we hadn’t left the parking lot yet! Following the trail past primitive, winter-abandoned campsites, took us over the creek several times. A giant turtle rock sat on the rim, hundreds of feet above us. Barren cottonwoods stood tall or leaned against canyon walls; water runoff had serrated the soil in areas, beating down the new green growth. Our voices began to echo as we neared the end of the box canyon. I expected to see a “Butch Cassidy Slept Here” sign as we moved along.  Finally, we reached the end and found a deep pool surrounded by a jumble of colorful rocks and boulders.  Unseen birds twittered softly in the dimming afternoon light. Peace and beauty were ours and stayed with us through the glorious sunset that had the LaSal Mountains.glowing pink as the sun’s rays melted over their snowy shawl.

Originally written January 2005