On Gertrude Stein, and Tragedy and Transcendence in Stein: Writings 1903-1932

By Daniel Garrett

Stein: Writings 19031932
Library of America, 1998

Gertrude Stein, in her plainly declarative, repetitious, elaborating, embracing sentences, said of painter Henri Matisse: “This one was certainly a great man, this one was certainly clearly expressing something.  Some were certain that this one was clearly expressing something being struggling, some were certain that this one was not greatly expressing something being struggling” (“Portraits and Other Short Works,” Library of America’s Stein: Writings 19031932, page 281).  Stein gives a picture of a man whose work was interpreted by different persons, some of whom understood and appreciated what he was doing and some of whom did not, the traditional story of an artist, especially an experimental one.  It is important to remember that some of the best loved and greatest artists suffered for their difference, for their craft and passion and vision; important to remember as it is part—though not all—of their truth and it may make us a little more tolerant, if not understanding, of the artists we ourselves come to know.  That the general public and sometimes family, friends, and lovers do not understand the commitment, content, and design of an artist’s work intensifies the difficulties of being an artist, of bringing new work into the world while also dealing, badly or well, with the usual demands—of citizenship, of love, of survival—in the world.  The individual artist, reminded of the confinements, pressures, and priorities of society, is often engaged in a struggle to achieve something that is both personal and impersonal, original and inflected with response to established and respected tradition, of the moment and for all time.  The artist, taking materials available to all, materials that do not interest most, is involved in a unique quest, a search of transformation and transcendence.

In reading some of the description of Gertrude Stein’s life, and how she came to be an art patron—a friend to artists, an owner of their work, a facilitator of relationships—I was impressed by how intimate and simple were the lives of now famous artists, how vivid the memory.  One artist spreads news of the work of another artist, Pissarro talking with others about Cezanne; or one gallerist, Vollard, introducing Cezanne, Daumier, Manet, Renoirs, and Gauguin to those who might appreciate them.  We are told of Henri Matisse and his wife that “The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy,” before becoming interested in painting and influenced by Poussin and Chardin,” in the cultural history and memoir that is “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (Stein: Writings 19031932, page 695).  “Under the influence of the paintings of Poussin and Chardin he had painted still life pictures that had considerable success at the Champ-de-Mars salon, one of the two big spring salons.  And then he fell under the influence of Cezanne, and then under the influence of negro sculpture.  All this developed the Matisse of the period of La Femme au Chapeau” (695).  Description of the cost and effort of a Matisse painting—of fruit that had to be bought and preserved for the time it took to complete a painting of it—and the strain and stress of that is given.  “Matisse worked every day and every day and every day and he worked terribly hard” (696).  It is always significant that how hard an artist works is emphasized, as much of what he does can look like leisure or play to people who do not understand it.  Many people still think work is only of the body, or only what one is forced to do, or paid to do; what begins outside of oneself, for reasons apart from oneself. The artist works with imagination, and insight and intellect; he or she works for and within the inner life, an inner life that can bring hope or despair, clarity or confusion, to the world.  The cruelty and ignorance of the world continue everyday due to the paucity of compassion and knowledge that is found in art; an absurdity or a tragedy, or both.

When Matisse put on exhibit at a salon the painting “La Femme au Chapeau,” it was “derided and attacked and it was sold” (697)—and sold to Gertrude Stein, beginning a friendship.  It was a picture that defied conventional presentation, in which a woman’s face showed different colors and forms.  It was hard for some observers to consider that maybe this painter did not want to see or say the usual thing in the usual way.  It is often hard for people to understand that.  I recall seeing my first Matisse in person at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan many years ago; I think it was a large red painting of pink people dancing in a circle, a strange work, a strangeness I welcomed, as I wanted what was different, free, new, thoughtful, work that separated the individual from the dull and the familiar and brought a new vision, a new world.  I still welcome strangeness.

When Gertrude Stein asks Alice Toklas what she thinks of Picasso’s work and Toklas says it is ugly, there is this useful Stein insight about originality and imitation: “Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it” (681).  It reminds that me that often the initial reception given to important works—whether books or dance or film or music—is marked by comments about how awkward and contradictory and rhetorical and wild they seem.  One is either lacking in manner, or too mannered.

Sometimes the world gives us a fact more brutal, more strange, more tragic than what we have been inclined to imagine; and, for many people, that happened on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by plane, and another hijacked plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.  The arts—dance, fiction, film, and music—have been taking aspects of the experience, of the surprise and terror and grief and anger and healing—and expressing and transforming it; and now at the site in downtown Manhattan where stood the twin towers of the World Trade Center there will be a commemoration of the loss in the form of two pools of water that reflect absence, an embodied contradiction.  That is what art does: express the difficult.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  The commentary on art above originally appeared on the pages of his internet log The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.