CHICAGO LITERARY CLUB PRESENTATION                      NOVEMBER 19, 2012         

 

“FROM FLOOR TO CEILING”

The success of Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” derives in large part from the fantasy that it would have been incredible to have lived in the City of Light in the 1920s and been a regular at the salon Gertrude Stein presided over in her Montparnasse apartment.  Like actor Owen Wilson, we too might have been rendered speechless in the company of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gerald and Sara Murphy and Ernest Hemingway along with other artists and society figures of the day.  

Since last October, when I too found myself in Paris and attended the opening of a fantastic exhibition, “The Steins Collect”, I’ve nurtured a different dream.  Mine is to find myself at another salon twenty years earlier--the studio at 27 rue de Fleurus on some Saturday evening at 9 p.m. That’s where Leo Stein and Gertrude held court for artists, foreign visitors and anyone interested in viewing their growing collection that contained the first, shocking new art canvases.

Leo was a brilliant conversationalist, able to hold listeners spellbound as he spoke on topics from his esthetic philosophy to artists he termed “The Big Four”: Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir. He also was part evangelist, part press agent for several then unknown, avant-garde artists he believed in deeply.

I could be among the first to gaze at those now-priceless masterpieces hanging on every inch of wall space. Had I arrived on a good night, I could have shared drinks, eavesdropped on and maybe joined the spirited conversation of two regular guests, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. I’d revel being at what one art historian called “the world’s first museum of modern art.”

Examining this brother and sister’s history-making impact on the art world, beginning in 1904 until 1913, requires knowing some earlier context about the personal and artistic evolution of Leo Stein, the intellectual force and main driver of the Stein collection. Though his glory-seeking sister later claimed those titles for herself, we can trust the verdict of Alfred Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, who said about Leo: “For the two brief years (from 1905-07), he was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-century painting in the world.”

The road that eventually led to Paris and the Steins’ incomparable collection was not direct but quite meandering. It is nothing short of a miracle that Leo Stein was to be its protagonist. Up to 1904, he was often less than the leading actor in his own life. But when history’s pivotal moment arrived, he was ready.

Leo was one of five children born to Daniel and Amelia Stein. The other siblings were Gertrude, who arrived two years later in 1874, Michael, Simon and Bertha. Although Oakland is most closely associated with the Steins, the place where their father made his fortune, all the children were born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Michael was the eldest sibling and the one who managed the family’s financial affairs after the death of their father in 1891. Daniel had made wise investments in real estate, the San Francisco stock exchange and the city’s street railway or cable cars. Michael sold his father’s franchise for the street railroad to railroad magnate, Collis Huntington.

The proceeds provided Leo and Gertrude with independent incomes and allowances of roughly $150 a month that allowed each to pursue their educations and eventually live abroad. Michael retired from the Market Street Railway Company in 1903. He and his wife, Sarah, joined Leo and Gertrude in Paris the following year and became noted art collectors as well.

However, in 1900, only three years before Stein devoted himself to art, and four before he began buying paintings in earnest, he was feeling quite rootless. Up to that time, Leo had been an academic gypsy, enrolling successively at Berkeley, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, dabbling and discarding three disciplines in a row.

He began at Berkeley soon after his mother’s death in 1888 where he enrolled in history, a long-standing interest. He soon grew disillusioned with that choice, calling history a “mare’s nest of illusory knowledge” subject to unconscious and deliberate distortions by historians and its participants. He wanted to find a method of analysis which could “get behind the spoken word to the real intention”, a method he would discover 10 years later with the new field of psychoanalysis.

He transferred to Harvard in 1892 where he was strongly influenced by the ideas of psychologist and philosopher William James. James’ ideas on the psychology of vision and perception, his belief in conscious and unconscious minds and his strong commitment to pragmatism all appealed to Leo. Gertrude, who joined Leo in Cambridge and enrolled at Radcliffe, also fell under James’ spell and was one of his favorite students.

Leo dropped out of Harvard after three years to go on an around-the-world trip. When he returned, he joined Gertrude in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins where she was studying medicine. Leo now too enrolled in the biology program. One writer theorized that Leo “seemed to inherit from his father a fatal inability to complete any course of action he had begun.”

        An editor of Leo’s writings noted that he possessed an encyclopedic mind that rendered him scattered among fields both scientific, philosophic and artistic. “His mind,” critic Van Wyck Brooks, wrote, “was a riot of intellection as he went in for biology and found even trigonometry delightful.”  The result of his checkered education was a mind divided in two directions. As Stein later admitted, he  thought like a scientist and saw like an artist.”

From early childhood, Stein nurtured a passion for drawing. By sketching live oaks near the family’s Oakland home, he became aware of artistic composition. He’d compare real apple trees with apple trees in etchings and saw how artists evoked the significance of their form. Or he’d analyze why a poppy next to a boulder looked more beautiful than others in a field. Such comparisons helped train his eye on how to see, an invaluable talent for later in life.

One day, after working in the lab at Hopkins, he experienced a revelation. “I soon realized that I could do nothing in the laboratory and one day I got a great idea in aesthetics and I dropped biology and decided to go to Florence for a few years.”

Leo made his way to Italy in 1900 in pursuit of a fourth calling--art and the life of an aesthete. He took up residence in Fiesole outside Florence, the home of famed art scholar, Bernard Berenson. Berenson had attended Harvard where he too studied with William James and tutored Charles Loeser, heir to a Brooklyn department store fortune.

Leo spent much time over the next two years at Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, cultivating his acquaintance and exchanging ideas with the Renaissance expert. Leo was 28 when he met Berenson, then 35, who proved to be an important role model. It was clear to both men that each had met their intellectual and aesthetic match. They quickly established a strong friendship though they both were aware of the other’s shortcomings.

Berenson was a strongly-opinionated individual. Leo wrote home to Gertrude in the Fall of 1900, soon after meeting Berenson for the first time, “He’s certainly very conversable and, in the main, I find him very sensible. There’s simply that tremendous excess of the I.” Or, in this case, two I’s.

          Berenson, for his part, later complained that Leo was an excitable man full of ideas “who was always inventing the umbrella”. And Mrs. Berenson believed that all Leo wanted in life was an ear.

Hers was an astute observation since Leo enjoyed nothing more than delivering little lectures on art or his opinions on life in general to anyone who would listen. During a trip to Florence by their Baltimore friends, Claribel and Etta Cone, now known as two of Matisse’s greatest collectors, Leo served as a willing tour guide.

Etta wrote the following entry in her journal on June 5, 1901: “Made our third visit to the Uffizi and as usual had Leo in his own leisurely way flitting from one to the other of us, each one of us delighted to welcome this wonderful brain. It is marvelous to me to find him absolutely well-groomed in every possible field of thought.”

Leo bought his first oil painting in London in the summer of 1901-- an unremarkable scene by English landscape artist, Wilson Steer. The purchase, however, was significant to Leo for another reason. “I felt like a desperado. Oil paintings were for the rich: that was part of the American credo. I realized one could own paintings even if one were not a millionaire.”

That credo was clearly in force at the time as the likes of J.P. Morgan, the Potter Palmers, sugar king Henry Havemeyer and wealthy corporate lawyer, John Johnson, were traveling throughout Europe, amassing their collections and paying very high prices.

By the winter of 1902, Leo was preparing to move again. He disliked Florence’s persistently-rainy weather and the city’s severity. So, he made his way back to Paris. He was at loose ends and in search of new adventure.  Leo had found that art history, as practiced in Florence, consisted of amiable “frowsy-headed” English ladies, a prospect he wanted no part of.

Adventure arrived soon after he landed in the City of Light. One evening, Leo was dining with cellist Pablo Casals who was on a European tour. He confessed to Casals that he felt himself “growing into an artist”. Hearing himself make such a declaration triggered some creative spark in Leo. Visibly excited by their conversation, he returned to his hotel that night, lit a blaze in the fireplace, stripped off his clothes and sketched himself in the nude by the flickering light.

He enrolled in the Academie Julian, a Parisian studio for serious art students. Now that he was embarked on being an artist, it was clear that he would need a proper studio and apartment where he could live and paint. A cousin suggested an apartment and tiny adjoining studio at 27 rue de Fleurus. 

Rue de Fleurus was a small street off the Boulevard Raspail in the 6th Arrondisement leading to the Luxembourg Gardens. The small studio Leo rented was in the rear courtyard of the building. It served as the Stein living room and subsequent art gallery. The separate, adjoining four-room apartment contained the bedrooms, kitchen and dining room.

He hung his beloved Japanese prints, which he’d acquired on his round-the-world journey, on the wall. Leo was fascinated by their arrangements of space, their subtle shapes and their vivid colors. That appreciation would prove critical in aiding his later appreciation of Matisse.

Leo was never more than a competent painter. He overcame his lack of innate talent to make pictures in the manner of the late Renoir. But this talent helped give him some credibility among the artists he befriended and collected.

In his new surroundings, Leo found his taste changing. He grew tired of his earlier, more conservative purchases. He was looking to buy some new art but was not satisfied by what he saw in the galleries and official salons.

The paintings in the new salons were more appealing, having freshness and vivacity, yet “not art with a capital A”. While in this searching period, Berenson  suggested that Leo visit the dealer Ambrose Vollard and have a look at paintings by Paul Cezanne.

Vollard is one of art’s fascinating characters who played a pivotal role in the rise of modern art. He arrived in Paris in 1889 as a 21 year-old from a remote French colony in the Indian Ocean. He had no artistic credentials for his profession but thrived as a dealer at a moment when galleries were gaining in prominence and replacing the conservative Paris Salon as arbiters of artistic taste.

          Vollard’s discovery of Cezanne, a heretofore neglected artist, made his fortune. He launched not only Cezanne but the careers of Picasso, Matisse, Odilon Redon and many others. He was also an author and an innovative publisher of original prints and limited-edition artists’ books. (You may remember the highly enjoyable exhibition about this legendary dealer that the Art Institute mounted in 2007).

          Vollard’s business practices were strange to say the least. He did little to advertise his extensive holdings. He concealed the vast majority of his paintings behind a divider at the back of the shop and never allowed anyone to look through them.

Gertrude recalled that the gallery looked like a junk shop. “It was an incredible place. It did not look like a picture gallery. Inside there were a couple of canvases turned to the wall, in one corner was a small pile of big and little canvases thrown pell mell on top of one another.”  Vollard made a point of not showing his clients what they asked to see. He would say he didn’t have any or that the requested work had just been sold.  

Opinions of him varied widely. Artists who complained that he exploited them made puns on his name, equating it with the French word for thief , voleur. Matisse called him “Fifi voleur” and, to Emile Bernard, he was “Vole-art”.

Others valued his loyalty and generosity. Though Vollard bought his paintings for a pittance, Cezanne called him an honest man and was eternally grateful for rescuing him from obscurity. He was the first important French artist to forge his reputation within the context of a commercial gallery.

         Leo was able to coax a Cezanne landscape, The Spring House, out of him.

Then, on holiday in Florence that summer, he made an intensive study of the Cezanne collection at the home of Charles Loeser, an American expatriate and Berenson’s friend.  Returning to Paris, Leo was excited by what he called his “Cezanne debauch” and that he felt like “a Columbus setting sail for a world beyond the world.” The new world that Leo spied in Florence was that of modern art.

Though his living allowance was modest which made buying canvases by Manet and Degas impossible, Leo realized that he could easily buy contemporary works. For the first time, he sensed that his life had real purpose. All the earlier strokes of random chance now coalesced into a defining pattern that made history.

 

For Leo and Gertrude (who joined Leo at 27 in the Fall of 1903), this story’s “Eureka moment” arrived with the second Salon d’Automne of 1904 where works by Cezanne, Redon, Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec were displayed. Leo already knew Renoir and other Impressionists from his visits to the Luxembourg Museum but he didn’t know Seurat or Gauguin.

 Brother and sister were both transfixed by what they saw. Two weeks later, they emptied their bank accounts of close to 8,000 francs (approximately $1,600) and bought two Cezannes, two Gauguins and two Renoirs from Vollard who threw in a Maurice Denis Virgin and Child for good measure.

          Leo, now a new art convert, and Gertrude proceeded to go on a buying tear. Six weeks later, they returned to Vollard’s and, for 8,000 francs, bought Cezanne’s Madame Cezanne with a Fan, a work that became the centerpiece of their young collection.  In two months, they had spent $3,200 (the modern equivalent of $80,000). Never again would they lavish so much so fast on art.

The dealer quickly saw the Steins as valuable allies for promoting his stable of artists. He often said approvingly that he liked dealing with the Steins because they were his only clients who collected paintings “not because they were rich but despite the fact that they weren’t”.

Leo added Matisse’s revolutionary “Woman with a Hat” in 1905 and works by Picasso the same year. During their lifetimes, the family (joined in January 1904 by brother Michael and Sarah Stein) owned 180 works by each artist.

          Leo had a difficult time appreciating the Matisse work. On first viewing the painting in the Salon d’Automne of 1905, he termed it “brilliant and powerful but the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen”.  Every other viewer was scandalized by its radical style: the riot of strong color (blues, greens and pinks), the surreal representation of reality and its flat picture plane. At this moment in his early career, Matisse was a member of Les Fauves, or “wild beasts”.

          Leo returned to the Grand Palais to view the painting many times before finally being captured by Matisse’s bold vision. He gave the artist 500 francs-- $100--and became a champion of the work. Matisse was very grateful to Stein since he desperately needed the money and had been increasingly demoralized by the violent reception to his painting. For the Steins, the purchase established them as serious collectors of avant-garde art.

That same year, Leo stumbled across upon Picasso’s work in some group shows, including one staged in a furniture store. He bought a large gouache or watercolor by the then obscure 24-year old, “The Acrobat Family” and later an oil, “Girl with a Basket of Flowers”, a work Gertrude hated. When he told her at dinner about the purchase, she reportedly threw down her silverware and said, “Now you’ve spoiled my appetite.” Years later, she turned down a would-be buyer willing to pay what she called “an absurd sum”.  The next year, Picasso, seeking the Stein’s patronage, completed his iconic portrait of Gertrude. 

The studio at 27 rue de Fleurus was about to become a destination that everyone had to visit. What did this mecca of modern art look like and what was its special atmosphere? Gertrude used the studio as her writing space and Leo used it for his painting.  Beginning in 1905, as word of their collection spread, they were increasingly interrupted by visitors who came during the day. To establish some order, they decided to institute the Saturday Salon. At first, the draw for his artist friends was Leo’s Japanese prints and, as one cynical regular remarked, the long loaves of French bread and cheese that stood in the center of the studio on the large Renaissance table behind a large couch.`

 

The Steins’ salon differed from the others in Paris at the time. It was an artistic salon, democratic in nature and not restricted along class lines. Anyone with a reference in hand or whom Gertrude invited off the street was allowed entry. The evening’s viewing began at 9 p.m. and could last into the wee hours. Many came from attending the nearby, less bohemian atmosphere of Sarah and Michael’s salon at 23 rue Madame that began at 8 p.m. where they toured their exclusively Matisse collection.

Visitors to the atelier entered a cluttered space—only 460 square feet total--with pictures at times hung three high, books lying everywhere and portfolios of Japanese prints and drawings by Picasso and others stacked against the wall. There was a cast-iron stove in the center of the room along with heavy furnishings-- a heavy Florentine table, chair and cabinet to the right and a couch to the left. There was no electricity so viewers had to bend down and squint to see the works in the half-darkness of flickering gaslight. Instead of wooden paneling, the Steins simply painted wainscoting a terra-cotta red color to about four feet high. Above that were walls of a dirty white gray.

The Steins felt that the modest, almost shabby, surroundings only emphasized the greatness of the works on the walls. Leo once said, “I don’t want any pictures in my room that I could not recommend for the Louvre.”

Upon entering, viewers saw stunning Cezanne oils and watercolors, the wild smears of Matisse’s portraits and landscapes along with the brooding nudes and acrobats of Picasso. Besides these works, there were paintings by artists of the “Generation of 1870”: Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.

In early 1906, one wall, from left to right, contained Cezanne’s study of Madame Cezanne, Renoir’s Two Women, Matisse’s Woman with the Hat, Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Sofa, Cezanne’s Bathers and Leo’s portrait of Michael Stein. This intergenerational hanging was unique for the time and was soon copied by collectors from Moscow, Berlin, London and America’s Eastern seaboard.

(You can view photos of the studio taken at two points in time after the talk. The first view shows the studio in 1906 when the walls were only half full and then in 1913 when every space from floor to ceiling was covered with art that is now  among modern art’s iconic images).

The studio quickly became the crossroads of the flowering modern art world, what Jacques-Emile Blanche, a society painter of the day, called “the cathedral of the international vanguard.” Friends flew in from San Francisco and Baltimore while art lovers came from all the major European capitals plus Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary.  The leading French dealer of Cubist art, David-Henry Kahnweiler, has written “You must understand that we lived in an atmosphere of euphoria, youth and enthusiasm that can hardly be imagined today.”

It was where American artists, like Arthur Dove, Edward Steichen, Marsden Hartley met Europeans; where dealers met major collectors like Russian Sergei Shchukin, Matisse’s later benefactor, and Dr. Albert Barnes of Philadelphia. They all came to see and hear Leo’s fervent endorsement of the art. He wrote that “The place was charged with the atmosphere of propaganda”.

Pablo Picasso met Henri Matisse there in the fall of 1906 where the two engaged in a wary competition. Matisse was the more established artist of 37 while Picasso was only 25 at the time. A friend of Gertrude’s said that Picasso resembled “a good-looking bootblack”. Leo wrote of the early Picasso: “I used to say that when Picasso had looked at a drawing or a print, I was surprised that anything was left on the paper, so absorbing was his gaze.” Of Matisse he observed, “Matisse was a social person rather than a convivial one. Picasso was more convivial than social. Matisse felt himself to be one of many, and Picasso stood alone, apart.”

The studio walls held Matisse’s three most sensational paintings: Woman with a Hat of 1905, La Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) of 1906 and the 1907 Blue Nude:Memory of Biskra. In comparison, Picasso’s blue and rose period canvases appeared tame. To compete, Picasso, over the next three years, painted his  portrait of the seated Gertrude, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon(1907), inspired by Blue Nude, and the 1908 Three Women. The last canvas was done to coax a purchase by the Steins and help the young Spaniard achieve parity with Matisse.

It was Leo who dominated the scene in the early years. Gertrude usually reclined on a chaise lounge. Until she published Three Lives in 1909, her presence was muted and few paid attention to her. She was noted mostly for her silence except when she emitted a deep laugh that was “as loud as a beefsteak”, according to Mabel Dodge. When Alfred Stieglitz visited in the summer of 1909, he reportedly had no idea who the big, smiling woman in the corner was.

Occasionally, Gertrude would join Leo in patronizing the new Americans who found Cezanne and Picasso too disturbing. Picasso called the curiosity-seekers who flocked to the Steins “virginal” explaining, “They are not men, they are not women, they are Americans.”

The Steins’ friend, Mabel Dodge, has given us a snapshot into the proceedings. “Leo was always standing up before the canvases, his eyeglasses shining and …with a fire no one would have suspected in the thoughtful, ramish scholar, he sought in every way to interpret the intention in them…patiently night after night wrestling with the inertia of his guests, expounding, teaching, interpreting.”  Leo was a tireless investigator who sought to understand the why and how of each artist’s method.

Another visitor’s review of Leo’s performance was equally glowing. “He talked everyone else out of the room but we listened absorbed to his last word.”  Steiglitz, the photographer and champion of the avant-garde, recalled visiting the salon with Edward Steichen. When Leo began to speak, Steiglitz says, “I had never heard more beautiful English nor anything clearer

What precisely did Leo say to his guests?  No records exist to answer such a question. However, excerpts from a letter he wrote to Mabel Weeks in 1906 give a clue about what we might have heard had we been there on a Saturday evening.

Leo might have begun, “The Big Four are Manet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. Of those Manet is the painter par excellence. He is not the great colorist that is Renoir but in sheer power of handling he has perhaps not had his equal in modern times.”

“Renoir was the colorist of the group. He again was a man of limited intellectuality but he has the gift of color as no one perhaps since Rubens—what you might call the feeling for absolute color. Degas is the most distinctly intellectual. He is incomparably the greatest master of composition of our time, the greatest master probably of movement of line with a colossal feeling for form and superb color.

Fourth comes Cezanne (whom Leo regarded as the liberator of pure form) and here again is great mind, a perfect concentration and great control. Cezanne’s essential problem is mass and he has succeeded in rendering mass with a vital intensity that is unparalleled in the whole history of painting. No matter what the subject is—the figure, landscape, still life—there is always this remorseless intensity…the unceasing effort to force it to reveal its absolute self-existing quality of mass….In brief, his is the most robust, the most intense and in a fine sense the most ideal of the four.”

One can almost hear him asking, “Any questions?”.  Leo’s pronouncements could carry a distinctly ex cathedra tone that brooked little opposition. Hutchins Hapgood, the friend who accompanied Leo on his 1895 world trip, wrote about this personal failing.  “There seemed to be something in him which took it for granted that anything said by anybody but himself needed immediate denial or at least substantial modification. He seemed to need constant reinforcement of his ego.”

 Stein’s saving grace was that listeners sensed what Hapgood called “something singularly pure, high-minded and noble about him.” Oh, what a wonderful time it sounds like and how I desire to have been a live witness to it.

Between 1906 and 1910, evenings at the Steins promised fascinating talks, glittering company and much artistic squabbling. However, as Gertrude said, “once everybody knows they are good, the adventure is over.”

The fizz of that special time was not meant to last. While the salon continued until 1913, Leo began to increasingly withdraw from the Saturday meetings. He lost interest the farther painting moved away from the realistic ideal set by Cezanne.

 By 1913, he tells Mabel Weeks, “I have long since given up the Saturday evenings. They still go on but I absent me from that felicity and I would rather harbor three devils in my insides (Leo suffered from severe intestinal problems) than talk about art.”

It seems especially tragic that such a special moment in Art ended badly for both siblings. While brother and sister had been inseparable as children, particularly following the death of their mother when Gertrude and Leo were young teenagers.  For the next twenty-five years, they traveled and lived together. Gertrude looked up to Leo as her artistic mentor and critical source of emotional support.

With the appearance of Alice B. Toklas, who moved into the rue de Fleurus flat in 1910, along with the increasing influence Picasso exerted on Gertrude’s artistic thinking, they drifted apart. Leo wrote to Weeks in 1913, “As we have come to maturity we have come to find that there is practically nothing under the heavens that we don’t either disagree about or at least regard with different sympathies.”

The main reasons for the split, apparently, were Leo’s harsh judgments about Gertrude’s writing and his vehement rejection of Picasso’s move away from realistic representation toward geometric Cubism, a movement he called “the intellectual product of the unintellectual”. 

Leo’s silence toward her first major piece of writing, “Three Lives”, published in 1909, pained Gertrude.  By 1913, his criticism was quite explicit. “Gertrude… hungers and thirsts for gloire, and it was of course a serious thing for her that I can’t abide her stuff and think it abominable”.

He then turned his critical pen to Picasso. “To this has been added my utter refusal to accept the later phases of Picasso with whose tendency Gertrude has so closely allied herself. They both seem to me entirely on the wrong track.

He ended with all guns blazing: “Both he and Gertrude are using their intellects, which they ain’t got, to do what would need the finest critical tact, which they ain’t got either and they are in my belief turning out the most Godalmighty rubbish that is to be found.”

Leo moved out of 27 in the Spring of 1914. Not only did two people part but the famed collection was split in two as well. In the light of art history, Leo got the lesser half. He left with only two Cezanne paintings, some Matisses and 16 beloved Renoirs. Gertrude got to keep all the Picassos. After Leo moved out, they would not see or speak to one another for 30 years.

Some scholars see Leo’s abandonment of the painters he had championed as indicating a loss of enthusiasm for art in general. But, with his move to America the following year, he began contributing art criticism to The New Republic, thus refuting that claim.

He became fast friends with the collector Albert Barnes whom he had met at the apartment in 1912.  Barnes’ collection had grown considerably and Leo traveled to see it in June 1915, followed by more visits in 1918 and 1919. The two spent hours studying Barnes’ collection of works by Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso. Ironically, rather than everyone flocking to see his collection, Leo was now going to see theirs.

The time he spent in America constituted a nomadic period in Leo’s life. He  returned to Europe at the end of 1919. He was able to overcome neuroses that had plagued him all his life to write two books, An ABC of Aesthetics and Appreciatio, which appeared a few weeks before his death on July 29, 1947.  He, unfortunately, didn’t survive long enough to either fully enjoy the positive reception or the new chance to promote his ideas.

Meanwhile, Gertrude’s literary and cultural influence rose as Leo’s waned with his retirement from view. By 1933, in need of extra money, she wrote the memoir, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in six weeks. The book brought her added fame and financial security but it played fast and loose with the truth. For whatever reason-- and her lifelong pursuit of la gloire or out of spite--she portrayed herself as the artists’ true friend and the one responsible for assembling the collection.

Her claim unleashed a critical firestorm among artists and collectors. Eugene Jolas, a literary critic and friend of avant-garde writers, published a special edition of his Transition magazine in February 1935 in which artists who knew both participants singled out her errors of fact. Its publication inflicted serious, though momentary, damage on Gertrude’s reputation from which she recovered nicely.

Matisse filled five pages attacking erroneous assertions in the book. Leo called it a “farrago of rather clever anecdotes, stupid brag and general bosh.There is almost nothing in the period before the war with which I was not acquainted and there is nothing that she has written that is true.”

Even Ernest Hemingway, a friend and salon regular from the Twenties, never forgave her for her falsifications.

Yet the general public today knows Gertrude more than her brother and may be more willing to accept the account in Alice as the true version. Popular history seems to have whitewashed this episode from its pages. In an effort to once again correct the record, I’ll cite a portion of Jolas’ colorful editorial from that special edition of Transition. It reads: Testimony Against Gertrude Stein

“To MM. Henri Matisse, Tristan Tzara, Georges Braque, Andre Salmon we are happy to give the opportunity to refute those parts of Miss Stein’s book which they consider require it.

These documents invalidate the claim of the Toklas-Stein memorial that Miss Stein was in any way concerned with the shaping of the epoch she attempts to describe. There is a unanimity of opinion that she had no understanding of what really was happening around her, that the mutation of ideas beneath the surface of the more obvious contacts and clashes of personalities during that period escaped her entirely. Her participation in the genesis and development of such movements as Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Transition etc, was never ideologically intimate and, as M. Matisse states, she has presented the epoch “without taste and without relation to reality”.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in its hollow, tinsel bohemianism and egocentric deformations, may very well become one day the symbol of the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature”.

Take that!

Just recently, Rebecca Rabinow, the curator who mounted the Stein exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum earlier this year, reaffirmed Leo’s undisputed claim to the throne. “If Leo hadn’t been around, I don’t think there would have been a collection.”

In just a few months, as the Art Institute commemorates the centennial of the Armory Show, let’s recollect what author Aline Saarinen wrote about the Stein collection in The Proud Possessors: “When in 1913, modern art burst upon the American public in the notorious Armory Show in New York, some of those who had helped select it and many of those who supported it had received their initiation and indoctrination at 27 rue de Fleurus and 23 rue Madame.”

Thank you.

 

 

Select Bibliography

Fuller, Edmund, ed., “Journey into the Self, Being the Papers and Journals            of Leo Stein”, Crown Publishers, New York, 1950

 

Mellow, James R., “Charmed Circle”, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1974

 

Museum of Modern Art, “Four Americans in Paris”, exhibition catalog, MoMA, New York, 1970

 

Rabinow, Rebecca et.al., “The Steins Collect”, Yale University Press and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New Haven, CT., 2011

 

Saarinen, Aline B., “The Proud Possessors”, Random House, New York, 1958

 

Stein, Leo, “Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose”, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1996