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Gertrude Stein and modernist painting

Somdatta Mandal | New Delhi |

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector. As an expatriate American and modernist woman writer who experimented with nearly all varieties of literary forms, she is widely acknowledged as a major author who is scarcely read. However, she continues to draw attention as a highly influential literary-cultural figure of the 20th century. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Oakland, California, Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and made France her home for the remainder of her life. She hosted a Parisian salon, where the leading figures of modernism in literature and art, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Virgil Thomson, Henri Matisse, and many more would meet.

In fact, Stein is a familiar name to anyone who has gone through the history of European modernism or American literature of the 1920s or the Parisian cultural milieu of the early 20th century.Widely acknowledged as a major writer in her own right, Stein was a contemporary as well as a mentor to several of the more widely read writers of the time. She is said to be instrumental in labelling the young lot of American writers in post-war Europe as belonging to une generation perdue, in other words, belonging to the members of the “lost generation”. Her influence on avant-garde artists and art and her own innovations in different literary genres form the basis of her continued recognition in the academic world.

Stein’s writing, which effectively undermines hierarchical, patriarchal modes of signification, also problematises marginalisations of several kinds. Her style marked such departures from conventional (and even other modernist) writing that the academic world hardly had any adequate terminology or critical tool to analyse it, whether to determine continuities or to assess divergences. However, analogies with comparable experiments in the visual arts, particularly in painting, can make Stein’s writing more accessible, though not necessarily comprehensible. The recognition of the largely obscure and abstract nature of her writing is strikingly evident in the titles of some of the early books written about her. In 1933, Stein published a quasi-memoir of her Paris years, The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas, written in the voice of her life partner, Alice B Toklas, an Americanborn member of the Parisian avantgarde. The book became a literary bestseller and vaulted Stein from the relative obscurity of the cult-literature scene into the limelight of mainstream attention. Two quotes from her works have become widely known, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” and “There is no there there”.

Her other books include Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstratum) about a lesbian romantic affair involving several of Stein’s female friends, and Fernhurst, a fictional story about a romantic affair. In Tender Buttons, which is considered by many as her literary cubist still life, Stein commented on lesbian sexuality. Just as lines and colours do not represent reality but suggest and evoke images, ideas or sensations in Picasso’s cubist still-life painting, the word combinations in Tender Buttons, without syntactic structure and coherence, convey meaning as an abstract still life does. Leaving the method of conveying meaning through the linear syntactic ordering of words, which characterise writing she adopts the “spatial” method of communicating meaning through associations and interrelations as in painting, using words in place of lines and colours. Following the early narrative experiments in Three Lives(1906) under the influence of Cezanne, she goes on experimenting with varied narrative devices, taking off from this in ways that parallel the methods of painters. Extremes of such experimentation can be seen particularly in the methods of verbal signification in Tender Buttons, presenting of characters in The Making of Americans, fragmentation and abstraction of narrative components in A Novel of Thank You (1926).

In these works Stein gave indirect expression to her personal concerns. With her training in philosophy and psychology and her acquaintance with revolutionary painters like Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Juan Gris, her writing soon took a new orientation. Like her painter friends, Stein also became preoccupied with the limits and possibilities of the artistic medium. In each of her fictional worlds, as in her experiments in the different genres, she sought new possibilities both within the genre and within her medium.

In the process of experimentation, Stein made radical deviations from convention. Her literary output thus has crucial interfaces with painting, modernism, post-modernism, and feminism. Stein’s interest in formal innovation, which began with her close understanding of painting, resulted in deviations from all traditional modes of writing, and in that process she wrote the “different language” of a feminist. Her activities during World War II have been the subject of analysis and commentary. Ultimately, the significance of her writings also lies not in their intrinsic value as literature or their being fully readable and comprehensible. This book is an attempt to understand the concerns that preoccupied Stein and to use this understanding to assess the creative patterns in her seemingly unreadable writings.

Coming to the nature of Stein’s experimental writings one must stress the importance of cubism as a genre. Cubism has the unique historic importance in that it opened up new artistic possibilities to a world that was changing at an unprecedented pace at the beginning of the 20th century. Studying the manner in which Picasso’s cubist style evolved can be relevant in efforts to understand Stein’s work. Just as cubist painting evolved through a series of experiments in the analysis of vision and of its depiction in art, Stein’s work can be seen to pass through a series of experiments in human perception and its representation in writing. This book suggests a framework for a study of the one through the other. The cubist style focused on the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane and rejected the conventions and techniques of linear perspective, chiaroscuro and the traditional idea of imitating nature. Instead of creating natural-looking objects, which appear three dimensional, cubist painters offered a new composition of images made up of two-dimensional fragments. Among the numerous factors, which favoured this change must have been the newly gained acceptance of photography as an art form, largely through the work of Alfred Stieglitz. Photography held the potential to be a more effective alternative to painting in the illusionistic representation of reality, and it was imperative for painting to seek more challenging artistic goals. Stein’s writing experiments had their primary focus on the writer’s perception of reality and ways of rendering it in writing.

To conclude we can state that going through historical and biographical details, Gertrude Stein American Modernist: Writing Painting and the Feminist Other draws parallels between the concerns and methods of modernist painting, and those that preoccupied Stein. Using principles of the semiotics of writing and painting, the book develops a general framework for reading some of the major works of Stein and examines her importance as a writer. It would not be overemphasising to state that the book with its lucidity of language helps us also to understand the Modernist movement and the interrelationship between the arts much better. The author should be congratulated for being the first Indian to complete doctoral research on Stein, for making the readers familiar with this avant-garde writer whose writings still remain more read about than actually read, more known about than actually known, and for enlightening the readers with complicated literary landmarks that dotted the first three decades of the 20th century.

The reviewer is professor of English at Visva-Bharati university.