Gertrude Stein Through Artists' Eyes : The Picture Show Gertrude Stein, doyenne of American letters, is the center of two exhibitions in San Francisco.
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Gertrude Stein Through Artists' Eyes

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Gertrude Stein Through Artists' Eyes

Gertrude Stein Through Artists' Eyes

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We've come to know Gertrude Stein as a doyenne of U.S. letters. Shes at the center of two exhibitions currently up in San Francisco that treads on some pretty familiar territory, including her friendship and patronage of Pablo Picasso and other artists.

But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the exhibitions also reveal some unfamiliar sides of Gertrude Stein.

LAURA SYDELL: Gertrude Stein enjoyed having her portrait done.

Ms. WANDA CORN (Curator, Contemporary Jewish Museum): You can count from 25 artists who at one time or another asked her if she would model for them or sit for her portrait.

SYDELL: Thats Wanda Corn, the curator of Seeing Gertrude Stein" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Among the most famous portraits is a 1922 photo by Man Ray of Stein sitting with Alice B. Toklas in front of the fireplace in their Paris home. In the foreground the two women sit comfortably in cushioned chairs but your eyes get quickly drawn to the wall behind them, covered with paintings by famous friends such as Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Henri Matisse.

Ms. CORN: It was really, in a manner of speaking, the first museum of modern art. There not being any such institution this early in the game.

SYDELL: Stein and her brother Leo were among the first to recognize the birth of modern art. They collected Picasso and Matisse before anyone understood their importance. Artists began to vie for a good spot on Stein's wall.

Ms. CORN: So when you were skied, or high on the studio walls, you were perhaps an artist that was young and new to them. But the stronger you became in their eyes, then your work was likely to travel down to eye level.

SYDELL: Stein had a short haircut in a style that made her look a little like Julius Caesar. The resemblance wasn't lost on artist Pavel Tchelitchew. He was cast out of Stein's circle, so he made an ink and sepia drawing of her in a toga, leaning back in a seat as if on a throne, holding a globe in one hand.

Ms. CORN: And that hand on the globe is very intentionally not only meant to be just the world in general, but the world of art, which he is saying she has much too much power and authority over.

SYDELL: While Stein is often portrayed as a lone figure, she is just as often seen with Alice Toklas, says Corn.

Ms. CORN: There was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude. They were joined at the hip, so to speak, from the time they started their domestic partnership 'til death.

SYDELL: Stein and Toklas spent years promoting other artists, and all the while Stein was writing her own experimental fiction. Her big break, well-documented in the exhibition with copies of early editions, was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Ms. CORN: And it was filled with good gossip and anecdotes and left bank lore.

SYDELL: It was an account of their life, written by Stein but told from Toklas point of view.

Ms. CORN: For most Americans, of course, they had never any access to her because they hadn't gone to Paris or they hadn't been invited to her homes. And this was suddenly a real story from somebody that they knew only faintly.

SYDELL: Stein also did a series of collaborations with other artists. The exhibition has some footage of productions of her ballets and operas. One of them turned out to be a big hit...

(Soundbite of opera, Four Saints in Three Acts)

Unidentified Actor: Scene 11. (Singing) Pigeons on the grass alas.

Unidentified Actors: (Singing) Pigeons on the grass alas.

SYDELL: Four Saints in Three Acts caught peoples attention with Steins non-traditional libretto, its all black cast and its lyrical music by Virgil Thomson. It even had a successful Broadway run. In 1934, Stein did a tour of the United States traveling from coast to coast averaging two lectures a week. Americans loved her. The show has an interactive map of her tour and some of her readings like this profile of Matisse.

Ms. GERTRUDE STEIN (Writer, poet and art collector): And then when he could not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing, when he had completely convinced himself that he would not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing, he was really certain then that he was a great one and he certainly was a great one.

SYDELL: Most of the art that Stein collected can't be found in this show. But go down the street to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition called "The Steins Collect." Gertrude Stein's brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, lived around the corner in Paris.

Janet Bishop is the curator.

Ms. JANET BISHOP (Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): They became in these early years, Matisse's most important patrons and trusted confidants.

SYDELL: Michael and Sarah were close to Matisse, but Gertrude was closer to Picasso.

Ms. BISHOP: The Steins introduced Matisse and Picasso to each other, which, you know, had to have launched one of the greatest artistic rivalries in the history of art.

SYDELL: On Saturdays, both Stein households had salons and many of their friends felt they had to choose. Going to Gertrude and Alices meant you picked Picasso. Going to Sarah and Michaels put you in the Matisse camp. Fortunately, the exhibition The Steins Collect has all their works in one place.

Though Stein's siblings were in many ways just as important as she was in helping discover and shape modern art, we mostly remember Gertrude because of her success as a writer and her love of her own image.

Stein would probably approve of the many works done after her death that make up the last part of the exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Curator, Wanda Corn.

Ms. CORN: I wanted to be able to sort of put it all into a holistic concept for my audience, and for people to be able to see her in her complexity, rather than just to always reduce her to a single word.

SYDELL: This exhibition shows Stein in all her many guises, as a mythical figure of the left bank, lesbian role model, feminist pioneer, a language innovator. Both shows will travel to the East Coast after they close here.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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