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by Michèle C. Cone
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In the early years of the 20th century, Leo Stein, his younger sister Gertrude, his older brother Michael and his sister-in-law Sarah, recently arrived in Paris from the United States, cornered the market of contemporary art by Pablo Picasso, and to a lesser extent by Henri Matisse. Incredible though it may be, the history of Cubism was written on the walls of Leo and Gertrude’s rue de Fleurus studio, while Matisse’s development could be traced at the Paris home of Michael and Sarah on rue Madame and then in their large Le Corbusier-built mansion near Paris.

The Metropolitan Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” Feb. 28-June 3, 2012, presents approximately 200 artworks that passed through the hands of this lucky foursome, beginning with works by the Impressionists and ending with Francis Picabia and Florine Stettheimer. The show revives the story of a family of eccentric American Jews in Paris, who a hundred years ago gained the friendship of artists now world-acclaimed, and bought avidly and knowingly from them.

It also revises this story by showing in the final room of the exhibition some of the acquisitions made between the two world wars by Gertrude Stein on her own, or with Alice B. Toklas in tow. The difference -- or one might say decadence -- in taste is so evident as to raise the issue of a Gertrude Stein paradox, even if, by today’s standards, the late works of Picabia have more currency than Picasso’s Cubism.

Although a number of American expatriates were living in Paris at the onset of the 20th century, few had the profile of Leo and Gertrude, born in San Francisco in 1872 and 1874, respectively, and raised by an aunt in Baltimore. They were quasi-inseparable since the death of their mother when they were young; they were footloose, well educated and well read, but without a profession. Michael, the older brother, had become head of the family after their father’s death, and he supported them. Michael and his wife Sarah would join them in Paris in 1904. In Paris, Leo and Gertrude inadvertently discovered their bohemian selves, he as a budding painter, she as a budding writer. Sarah also painted.

Just as inadvertently, all four of them became collectors. Their first acquisitions, some of them on view at the Met, were Japanese prints, and lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Leo had first lived in Florence, discovered its museums in the company of his sister and of the art historian Bernard Berenson, who had directed them to Cézanne. Leo, as straight as his sister was gay, went primarily for nudes, reclining or standing, such as Pierre Bonnard’s 1900 sensual painting Siesta (1900), which lasciviously depicts a young woman in bed lying naked on her belly on top of rumpled sheets. It’s on view at the Met.

Leo had a hard time talking his sister into acquiring Picasso’s 1904 Girl with a Basket of Flowers, a standing nude with pre-adolescent curves and long legs, who directs an unashamed glance and her lithe body to whomever was staring at her from beyond the frame. The painting is also on view in “The Steins Collect.” Leo acquired quite a few paintings by Renoir. Meanwhile the twosome had obtained Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne with a Fan (1878-1888), which the Buhrle Foundation in Zurich now owns and apparently did not lend to the show.

Watching the Stein family from the sidelines were Paris gallery owners like Ambroise Vollard and Clovis Sagot, and the artists that the galleries showed, especially after it became known that the Steins had acquired Matisse’s Woman with a Hat in 1905, on view at the Met. A deluge of Matisse works makes its appearance almost overnight at rue de Fleurus and rue Madame, and soon impressive examples of Picasso’s Rose and Blue Periods, followed by Boy Leading a Horse, enter Gertrude and Leo’s collection. The rush was on to make portraits of a Stein. Between 1905 and 1906, Picasso portrays not only Gertrude, but also Leo and Allan, Michael Stein’s young son. Matisse will also portray some of the Steins later on, though neither Gertrude nor Leo. “The Steins Collect”brilliantly illustrates this frenzy.

As Picasso engaged in a deconstruction of pictorial space and subverted the language and grammar of one-point perspective, as he abandoned the painting of landscapes, still lifes and figures in favor of rebuses in paint or papier collé of such subjects, Gertrude and Leo Stein went right along. In its seventh gallery the Met show has major examples of what at the time must have seemed to the average viewer the work of an artist gone mad. The preparatory works for the Demoiselles d’Avignon (907), Nude with Drapery (1907), La rue des Bois (1908), Nude in a Forest (1908), The Architect’s Table (1912), Still Life with Bottle of Rum (1914) and other cubist Picassos arrived at rue de Fleurus between 1907 and 1914. Perhaps only foreign transplants, confronted daily with listening to and speaking a language that was a rebus to them, could capture so quickly something of the essence of Cubism.

The fact that Leo and Gertrude split the collection when Leo moved out of rue de Fleurus shortly before WWI (he did not take to Gertrude’s live-in lover Alice B. Toklas) has produced a slanted view of who acquired what. Gertrude did end up with the Picasso Cubist works and Leo with the Renoirs, but they bought the works together until around 1912. The provenance research carried out by Robert McDonald Parker for the catalogue of the Met show is very useful in this respect. It demonstrates that both deserve credit for the daring and smart acquisitions of Picasso’s evolving Cubist mode, year by year.

Why Leo let go of the bulk of the Picassos (with the exception of two drawings and a letter illustrated with small sketches of clownish figures with thighs wide open [on view at the Met]) remains something of a mystery. Certainly, brother and sister did not part on friendly terms. Leo told the world what he thought of Gertrude’s “Cubist” writing, and his negative comments on a literary style that Gertrude claimed was inspired by Picasso’s paintings may explain his rejection of both the writing and the art.

Yet, as things stand today, the only argument between brother and sister is said to have been over a still life of apples by Cézanne, which Leo insisted on keeping. As seen on the walls of the Met show, Picasso compensated its loss by painting for Gertrude one single green apple as succulent looking as an apple can be.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the Steins did not keep their collection intact. Sarah and Michael suffered a loss during WWI when the 19 Matisses that they had lent to a show in Berlin just as WWI was about to break out were not returned to them, and they later agreed to sell them. At the Met, quantity makes up for quality on the Matisse front. A rarely seen Matisse, Boy with Butterfly Net from 1907, now at the Minneapolis Museum of Art, has the naïve quality of early American painting.

As for Gertrude and Leo, a quick glance at the provenance of many works on view at the Met reveals changes in ownership during their lifetime. Gertrude sold a small painting by Edouard Manet, Ball Scene (1873) to Paul Rosenberg in 1919 (see catalogue p. 405). Picasso’s Boy leading a Horse that had once had a place of choice rue de Fleurus landed in the Paley collection in 1936, after it had passed through German hands in Berlin. It is now at MoMA (see catalogue p. 430). There are many other examples. Leo sold 24 Renoirs to Dr. Barnes (where they have been locked away ever since). The Cone sisters, who were close to the Steins, bought some 30 paintings from them. They are now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the common view of the Steins as rich Americans, they were not immensely wealthy. Gertrude and Leo lived on a monthly stipend that they often overspent. Gertrude needed money to get her difficult “Cubist” writings into print. With Toklas, she indulged in a lavish lifestyle, several servants, the best wines, the most refined repasts, two dogs and two residences, all of which gave the illusion of great wealth.

Yet their remaining in France during WWII may well have been partially motivated by the lower cost of living there than in the United States. Leo admitted that if he had had enough money he would have returned to America when WWII broke out. Instead he and his wife hid with peasants in the Tuscany countryside and Leo died penniless in Italy shortly after his sister.

But if a shortage of cash explains why the Steins sold some of their prized early acquisitions, and why after World War I Gertrude could no longer afford to buy Picasso works -- Sarah remained loyal to Matisse after WWI -- it does not suffice to explain what I call the Gertrude Stein paradox, the contrast between Gertrude’s early and late choices in art and in friendships.

In the ‘20s Gertrude mostly turned her attention to theatrical paintings by recent émigré white Russian illustrators -- stage designers -- painters labeled “neo-Romantics,” while in the ‘30s she favored a former Dadaist, Francis Picabia, who was then making heavily outlined figurative portraits. The English artist Sir Francis Rose and a very young painter from Orléans named Roger Toulouse also drew her attention in the late 1930s.

Stein mostly snubbed the left-leaning pro-Russian Revolution Surrealists throughout that period, be it Max Ernst in the ‘20s or René Magritte in the ‘30s. She made an exception for the poets René Crevel and Georges Hugnet and, in 1923 and ’24, did buy paintings by André Masson. At that point, his work illustrates “chance” rather than using it as a technique. One of the Masson paintings is visible in the last room of “The Steins Collect.”

The neo-Romantic Pavel Tchelitchew and the Berman brothers were part of a new wave of stage designers trained in Russia during a period of brilliant renewal, which included the elaborate designs of Leon Bakst and later the more abstract designs of Alexandra Exter who had been Tchelichew’s teacher.

They fled the Russian Revolution and came to Paris in the early ‘20s, survived as portrait painters (some of the portraits they made of Stein are on view at the Met) and first showed at Galerie Druet in Paris. It is possible that Stein’s interest in stage designers in the ‘20s had to do with her meeting the composer Virgil Thomson, for whom she wrote several librettos for opera productions based on his music (Four Satins in Three Acts, 1927-28, Mother of Us All, Dr. Faustus Lights the Light, 1938).

Thus, behind the acquisition of dream-like paintings by Tchelitchew and the Berman brothers (not illustrated in the Met show) was Gertrude’s need for their ideas as potential stage designers for her operas. A short film on view near the end of the Met show illustrates this new interest, as does a lineup of small stage figurines by Florence Stettheimer destined for a Stein opera.

It is also the case that Picasso, at whose altar Gertrude worshipped, himself went through a White Russian detour. In 1916, he left Paris for Rome with Jean Cocteau to work on the ballet Parade, a new production of the Ballets Russes with music by Eric Satie and a scenario by Cocteau. As a way to satiate his curiosity about Russian culture and traditions, he married one of the ballerinas in the company.

If the friendship with the neo-Romantics can be explained by a career move on Stein’s part and on that of Picasso, her attraction to Francis Picabia’s paintings in the ‘30s, crowned by her acquisition of two portraits of her (one of them in the last room of “The Steins Collect”) is more shocking. After a fling with Cubism and with Dada, plus a phase of painting “Transparencies”(one is in the show), Picabia began in the mid ‘30s to make commercial figurative oil paintings that some would call kitsch. He continued making such works during WWII, copying on a large scale the salacious photographs he found in girlie magazines. A few of them were recently on view in New York at the Michael Werner Gallery.

In the context of the 1930s publication of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a commercial success, followed by her immensely popular lecture tour of the United States, and knowing of her new interest in lowbrow detective literature, one might propose that she, like Picabia, was resolving some narcissistic issue by acceding to popular demand for intelligibility.

One leaves the final bay of “The Steins Collect” at the Met fairly satisfied that the Gertrude Stein paradox can be explained by Stein’s career move to opera librettist, by Picasso’s own move in the direction of the stage, and by a shared sensibility with an artist who -- like her -- had not sought success in his early days as a Dadaist, but later decided to become accessible to the hoi polloi.

Overall, “The Steins Collect” evinces a valuable if narrow focus. It encodes the importance of friendships between artists and patrons in the days of the Steins, and shows how those friendships manifested themselves in the art choices made by Leo alone, Gertrude alone, Leo and Gertrude together, Sarah and Michael together. Those who have read the more recent tomes on Gertrude Stein during WWII and her “unlikely collaboration with Vichy,” to paraphrase the title of Barbara Will’s recent text, will be disappointed. But that’s an altogether different topic.

“The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” Feb. 28-June 3, 2012, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian. She is moderating a roundtable discussion on "The Gertrude Stein Paradox" at the School of Visual Arts Theater on Apr. 2, 2012, at 7 pm.