uncategorizedA Topical Pick from the Archives
Sunday, July 31st, 2011

What are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Many of Them?

artcritical is deeply saddened by the passing yesterday, June 16, of Bill Berkson, a longstanding and valued friend of this magazine. Bill served as our first poetry editor, commissioning a number of spectacular collaborations between artists and poets, as well as contributing several significant essays and reviews, including this one from 2011. He also appeared twice on The Review Panel

Report from… San Francisco


The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde, organized by Janet Bishop, Cécile Debray, Rebecca Rabinow and Gary Tinterow for the following venues: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (to September 6); Réunion des Musées Nationaux––Grand Palais, Paris (October 3-January 16, 2012); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 21-June 3, 2012).


Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, organized by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (to September 6); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (October 14-January 22, 2012).


Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, organized by the Musée National Picasso and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. De Young Museum, San Francisco (to October 9); travels last to Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, November 12-February 19, 2012.

Sir Francis Cyril Rose, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1939. Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Sir Francis Cyril Rose, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1939. Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

How great is this? In downtown San Francisco, within three blocks of each other, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum have concurrent, eyepopping and hugely detailed shows on the activities of Gertrude Stein, her brother Leo, their older brother Michael and his wife Sarah, and, finally, Gertrude’s great love Alice B. Toklas, in furthering and collecting early twentieth-century art in Paris. And to top it off, across town, on the near edge of Golden Gate Park, the De Young Museum is hosting an equally astonishing set of 150 Picasso paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The contents of all three shows together should be enough to put some soul in anybody’s summer.

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” at the CJM is mostly just that. For those not already interested in Stein and how her looks, manner and the company she kept changed with age, the walk-through experience might feel a bit so-so. As it was, they changed considerably, and not just with age, but with her literary achievements and her own self views, as well as with how others saw her. Studying her strong face and massive physique, remarkable as they were, or the dust jackets of her books won’t help you enjoy her writings any better, although the recordings of her reading some of her work, as well as the electrifying footage of the original 1934 production of her and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, surely will. Curated by Wanda Corn and Tirza Latimer, who also wrote alternating chapters for the accompanying book, “Five Stories” is more a procession of essays to be read––sumptuously illustrated and exhilarating at that––than a show to go see.

Unidentified photographer, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, c. 1927, photo reproduction of original photograph. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Unidentified photographer, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, c. 1927, photo reproduction of original photograph. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Under subheads like “Bohemian Stein,” “Matron Stein,” and  “Imperial Stein,” you find a person––insistently, by her own lights, a genius––alternately courageous and wary, endlessly (often haplessly) self-promoting, too regularly enthralled by her own pronouncements. She could be all smiles and warmly persuasive in her public appearances during her legendary mid-1930s American lecture tour, and yet long before then her demands on any self-respecting caller had become famously insufferable. In the book and wall texts, both Corn and Latimer stress as exemplary in its forthrightness and ardor the way she and Alice Toklas settled into their lesbian life together for nearly 40 years: “By 1910, Stein and Toklas had privately pledged themselves to each other as husband and wife. From now on, they used the language of conventional marriage to describe their love, calling each other hubby and wifey and dividing up domestic chores strictly along traditional gender lines.”

Stein may well have been the most portrayed writer of her era. The range of painters and photographers who sought her out as a sitter––from Picasso to Picabia, from Man Ray to Cecil Beaton––says something about her allure. By the late 1920s, her main artistic affiliations were with photography and sculpture (though strangely, despite the efforts of both Jacques Lipchitz and Jo Davidson, no sculptural image quite brings home the scale and force of her presence). “Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art,” she declared in 1931. It was in light of such dim prospects that when she did buy pictures they tended to be works by lesser painters who came her way––most famously, the hyper-opportunist Sir Francis Rose, out of whose 130 works in Stein’s collection, only one on view, an atypical, Jess-like portrait hanging at the CJM, has serious merit.

“The Steins Collect” is epic. Besides delivering the goods in sheer density and depth, a plenum of marvelous objects to look at, the installation, a high-wire performance by SFMoMA curator Janet Bishop, allows healthy, albeit sometimes heated, dialogue between on-site appreciation and what has come to be advanced as museological significance. Late in life, Gertrude Stein confided what was first apparent in her approach to art and artists, that she had “always wanted to be historical.” The inevitable tension between how to historicize oneself as an artist and other, institutional ideas of history is implicit in her unqualified response to Alfred Barr’s attempts early on to get her to give her collection to the Museum of Modern Art: “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”

“The Steins Collect” is historical as not just a telling array of art works but also the story of the people connected with them, who seem bent on being interesting in infinitely compelling ways. Combine this with the documentation of Gertrude and Alice at the CJM, and you get an aggregate saga in perpetually interweaving parts, not least of which are the adventures of some members of a well-off but not super-rich second-generation Jewish family from the San Francisco Bay Area in building collections of such magnitude. Gertrude and Leo took the lead, and Sarah and Michael soon matched them. In and around Paris beginning in 1905 and after returning permanently to California thirty years later, Sarah Stein lived out her special passion for the art of Matisse (who in turn dubbed her “the really intelligently sensitive member of the family”­­), while Michael tended to the financial end so that everyone’s income from the family businesses (street cars and rental properties back home) could be adequately maintained.

The early galleries at SFMoMA, as well as those at the De Young, serve as reminders of how hard-won were the glories of the avant-garde’s pre-World-War-I Golden Age. To contemplate what took place just within the first half of the decade leading up to 1914 is dizzying. It was in Gertrude and Leo’s salon in 1906 that Picasso and Matisse met and where, more often than not, over the next few years, each one saw some painting by the other, a shocker, deep within the terms of painting, that left both artists and their immediate audiences, too, wondering what turn the art would take next. In this brief epoch of largely abandoned or otherwise imploding masterpieces, it’s easy to imagine the two of them repeatedly scaring themselves and each other, courting catastrophe in a kind of delirious one-up-manship (the point being not to scare off or win but to further heighten the game). The most scarifying of all, of course, was Picasso’s “first exorcism picture,” Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an abrupt, nightmarish inversion of the Arcadian dream––that dear sad fantasy of liberality and ease adapted from Cézanne by Matisse, who carried it over from his Fauvist-psychedelic phase to the classic grandeur of the pictures (Sarah’s and Michael’s Le Luxe I was one) done after summering with the Steins in Italy in 1907, the same year Demoiselles got started. The demoiselles may have no clothes on, but they are not in a grove by a stream; Picasso’s brothel concoction is a B-side enactment of an un-modern earthly paradise.

Would Demoiselles have been to Gertrude’s liking? Leo hated it and all of Picasso that followed from it; hated, too, Gertrude’s writings that ran close parallels to Picasso in invention, plus, he had zero tolerance for the fact of Alice in Gertrude’s life––so finally he moved out, taking his Renoirs and many choice Cézannes with him. In the Autobiography, Gertrude records Alice’s first impression of Demoiselles as of “something painful and beautiful there and oppressive but imprisoned.” By the time Picasso let the picture out of the studio, some nine years after stopping work on it, Gertrude couldn’t afford her old friend’s prices, and anyway it was too big, rough and imposing to be accommodated in any grouping on her household walls. Accordingly, the Demoiselles itself has no wall space in any of these shows. Instead, although physically absent, it haunts every one of them. What we see in its place at SFMoMA, are the related paintings and drawings that at one point formed a single line along the wall behind where Gertrude sat at her writing desk.

At some distance from the Matisse-Picasso agon, the most refined of the Arcadians––and the only one who brought the mode to flower in cubism proper––was Juan Gris. Softer and subtler than either, with what Gertrude Stein rightly called his “clarity and exaltation,” Gris achieved the serenity that Matisse frantically reached for and something extra that even Picasso never managed, the confidence that true mystery can come embedded in design.

Pablo Picasso, Study for Nude with Drapery,1907. Tempera and watercolor on paper mounted on board, 12-3/16 x 9-7/16 inches. Private collection.
Pablo Picasso, Study for Nude with Drapery,1907. Tempera and watercolor on paper mounted on board, 12-3/16 x 9-7/16 inches. Private collection.

“Sensitive” is not a word commonly applied to Picasso’s art but many early works here answer precisely to that description, among them the portrait of young Allan Stein, Michael and Sarah’s son. Matisse’s two depictions of Allan, two rooms later, are bold but comparatively impersonal exercises in picture making, although in the case of Boy with Butterfly Net, seemingly empathetic to the boy’s mad plunge into adolescence. Matisse’s best moments would occur soon enough; the great shorthand portraitist he would become is visible the images he made in 1916 of Michael and Sarah themselves, gems of SFMoMA’s permanent collection.

At the De Young you get a freshly impressive, quickstep survey of Picasso’s manifold achievement, affording, in the process, the chance to see many familiar works in a new light for being seen in a new place. (Given the pleasures of all that, it’s for the loveliness of small works, some unfamiliar and many still unframed as Picasso apparently preferred them, that one feels especially grateful.) Enough has been written about Picasso’s faults as a man, and even as an artist, his well-known monstrous side. There is far more to be gleaned from the deep humanity of his art, which, when it shows, is prodigious: this time around, for instance, for how, as a dramatist, he wrote the book on being and reflection, making them manifest in the simultaneity of pictorial form. In the Seated Woman of 1920, for instance, amazingly stately for all the systematic chunkiness of foreshortened body parts, and in the beautifully lost look of the couple in Village Dance (1922), how his characters’ eyes rest somewhere other than on the viewer (or other than, when accompanied, on one another), the whole gesture imbued with some large, slow turn in inner life.

“Picasso made me tough and quick and the world”––this line from Frank O’Hara’s “Memorial Day, 1950” echoes as I walk through the galleries. What a world: That no special theory emerges from any one or several visits may be part of what makes the serendipity of having all three shows here at once so happy and right. You look and look, and your sense of each picture and the next and the one across from that––or on yet another wall across town––gathers; together they click and make a constellation of shimmering details in and out of time. As Gertrude Stein herself said, concluding her 1923 portrait of her most constant artistic bedfellow, “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”

Man Ray, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1922. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Isabel Wilder, © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
click to enlarge
Henri Matisse, Sarah Stein, 1916. Oil on canvas, 28-1/2 in. x 22-1/4 inches. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sarah and Michael Stein Memorial Collection, gift of Elise S. Haas
click to enlarge