The Self-Portraits of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso
It is no wonder that Picasso, with his revolutionary style of painting, would be attracted to Gertrude Stein s crowded Rue de Fleurus apartment on Saturday evenings for intellectual discussions on art and literature. From the barefoot dances and improvisational plays of Max Jacob to the comments of critics and would-be art patrons like Maurice Raynal and Andr Salmon, this salon was an assortment of artists, bohemians, professionals, and foreigners (Myers 18; Olivier 139). The beginnings of a marvelous relationship sparked betwixt the words of aversion and praise that filled the halls of the Steins extravagant home.
Picasso proved to be rather opinionated, spending the greater part of his visits to the Steins residence sulking in the corner. He found difficulty in explaining his far-fetched opinions and positions, especially in French; in fact, he felt they needed no explanation. Frequent explication of his views, mixed with Matisse s inspired advocation of his own way of painting, failed to entertain Picasso, and thus most viewed him as a rather disagreeable character. Still Picasso returned each Saturday to sit aloof and observe the conversation of Paris elite intellectuals. It was not until Picasso began his portrait of Gertrude Stein that their relationship began to flourish.
Over ninety sittings brought Stein to Bateau Lavoir to be Picasso s first live model in years. Rodenbeck in her essay entitled Insistent Presence in Picasso s Portrait of Gertrude Stein observed that,
Stein was upper middle class, a trained scientist, a non-practicing Jew, a lesbian, over-educated, American and, in 1905, shy with accented French; Picasso, by contrast, was bohemian, a lapsed but highly superstitious Catholic, vigorously heterosexual, self-education, and a Spaniard with accented French. But their attraction was immediate. (4)
Hobhouse writes, Both were direct, a little rough with company, greedy, childish in their enthusiasms and petulant in their dislikes. . . . And both, at the time, were beginning to be convinced they were geniuses (68). They experienced the same events and people in Paris prior to and during the Cubist movement, a common exposure that developed them in the same direction artistically (Myers 37). Picasso demonstrated the breakdown of art and painting into its simplest form; Stein did the same with language. As their relationship developed, Picasso and Stein began having a tremendous influence on each other s works, although Myers noted that ultimately Stein was more influenced by Picasso s work than vice versa since he was unable to read English, her main language of expression (37).
The level of intimacy that was achieved by Picasso and Stein goes deeper than the Saturday evening soir es, though. Stein was to the world of literature what Picasso was to the world of art. They shared the same vision for their respective means of artistic expression and excelled at introducing the world to a new, more free style of relaying its ideas. Stein shared in Picasso s struggle not to express what he could see but not to express the things he did not see, that is to say the things everybody is certain of seeing but which they do not really see (Stein 19). So ultimately, in portraying Picasso, Gertrude Stein managed to reveal herself to her readers. . . . [It] must never be forgotten that the only way Picasso has of speaking, the only way Picasso has of writing is with drawings and paintings (Stein 38).
Stein, in her book Picasso, repeatedly reminds the reader of the similarities between Spaniards and Americans. She writes, . . . Spaniards and Americans . . . have something in common, that is they do not need religion or mysticism not to believe in reality as all the world knows it, not even when they see it. In fact, reality for them is not real and that is why there are skyscrapers and American literature and Spanish painting and literature (18). This perfectly sets the stage for her double feature. In her descriptions of his cubist movement, Stein describes her forging of a new style of writing; in her explanations of his simple shapes and figures, Stein reveals her relaxed, stream-of-consciousness style. Now her audacious attempts at interpreting Picasso s behavior are not so brazen at all, for she is describing herself as well; she and Picasso are the same. Stein is able to comprehend Picasso s motivation in painting, . . . he is a man who always has a need of emptying himself, of completely emptying himself, it is necessary that he should be greatly stimulated so that he could be active enough to empty himself completely. This is the way he lived his life (5). She sees through his eyes, she thinks with his thoughts; they are one.
The painter does not conceive himself as existing in himself, he conceives himself as a reflection of the objects he has put into his pictures and he lives in the reflections of his pictures, a writer, a serious writer, conceives himself as existing by and in himself, he does not at all live in the reflection of his books, to write he must first of all exist in himself, but for a painter to be able to paint, the painting must first of all be done, therefore the egotism of a painter is not at all the egotism of a writer, and this is why Picasso who was a man who only expressed himself in painting had only writers as friends. (4)
Here, the reader is told exactly how Stein views herself. The common definition of a writer being a person who writes is void. To herself, Stein is not a writer at all; she is a painter. Though she does write, she is an artist who paints pictures a painter. Therefore, she conceives herself as a reflection of her writings. This is how Stein is able to excel in creating an autobiographical biography.
Picasso was rather daring in his decision to paint Stein s portrait in her absence, even after ninety sittings with her. He told her, I can t see you any longer when I look, and left after painting out a head that was soon replaced with the mask-like visage of the finished portrait. And even after such hard work as Picasso put into his portrait, many often commented that the portrait did not remotely resemble Stein. Being that Picasso is a painter, Picasso s portrait of Gertrude Stein is really a reflection of himself.
In his portrait, Picasso gave Stein
a strange, mask-like face, with prominent eyes, a sharply angled nose, a straight, uncompromising mouth. The portrait became a stunning transitional work, lingering at the end of his Rose period of harlequins and circus subjects. With its brown and somber coloring, its tawny hints of rose in the flesh colors and in the background, the painting resembled the autumn of that style. (Mellow 93)
When approached in a literal sense, it is not difficult to find a resemblance between the mask-like countenance in the portrait and Picasso s own face. The face in the portrait is strikingly masculine in its features, yet with extreme softness. Picasso s own mouth and nose are almost identical to the pair in his portrait. They share the same dimple in the upper lip and smile impressions. The hair and ears are shaped rather similarly and their build is of the same size.
With cubism, the need for framing becomes obsolete. In Picasso, Stein writes, . . . the framing of life, the need that a picture exist in its frame, remain in its frame was over. A picture remaining in its frame was a thing that always had existed and now pictures commenced to want to leave their frames and this also created the necessity for cubism (12). Picasso gives his subject her own frame of reference, rather than limiting her existence to what can be seen straight ahead. Thus, she is no longer a subject merely to be looked at, but another living creature, with thoughts that are evident. There is a world outside the four edges of the canvas, and her gaze proves this. The perspective of the picture also reflects Picasso s way of seeing things. Stein writes, The things that Picasso could see were the things which had their own reality, reality not of things seen but of things that exist (19). In the portrait, Stein stares off at some mysterious sight, either wondrous or horrifying, not into the eyes of the viewer. With this, Picasso creates a reality for his subject of things that exist outside the frame of the portrait. The message is found not in what is seen, but in the reality of the unseen.
Stein s message for the reader about Picasso and, in turn, about herself is that
. . . Picasso was the only one in painting who saw the twentieth century with his eyes and saw its reality and consequently his struggle was terrifying, terrifying for himself and for the others, because he had nothing to help him, the past did not help him, nor the present, he had to do it all alone and, as in spite of much strength he is often very weak, he consoled himself and allowed himself to be almost seduced by other things which led him more or less astray. (22)
Picasso and Stein were pledged to delve the new horizons of art and literature. They were revolutionizing the art of expression. Knowing not what to expect, they forged on alone into the future of artistic expression. They were able to reflect themselves in their work and portray the reality in the things that exist, not just the things that can be seen. Yet the most remarkable aspect of this reformation is that they approached such a complex and broad way of thinking in the most simplistic of fashions. They were able to overcome the discouraging criticisms of their skeptics to create what is considered among the most precious of all movements in art.
Hobhouse, Janet. Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G. P. Putnam Sons, 1975.
Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Co. New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
Myers, Marjorie R. Gertrude Stein: The Cubist Years. Diss. Tulane U, 1979.
Stein, Gertrude. Picasso. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984