Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 79

Giant Gertrude Stein Ridiculed By Little Male
If you want to see a fresh example of how a great woman author is being diminished by a male critic, with no holds barred, go to the Washington Post and read:

Review of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, by Phil Kennicott

Sunday Arts

You won’t easily forget the experience.

What is the occasion? The Stein exhibition from SF, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, just opened at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. Everybody who is anybody is celebrating the event, talking about the present Stein renaissance (the other seminal exhibition, The Steins Collect, has moved to the Paris Grand Palais and will soon open in NY), except those who feel somehow excluded from the excitement because they harbor a deep old resentment against Stein.

In the comment thread below the article, you will read a fascinating analysis of this attack by one commentator:

“Let’s put it this way, Mr. Kennicott holds a position of power as a writer for a major American newspaper. It is his job as a cultural critic to bridge the gap between an exhibition such as “Seeing Gertrude Stein” and the public. Voicing his hatred for Gertrude Stein is irresponsible both on his part and his editors at the Washington Post. Writing a sensational essay is always more about the essayist than the subject matter of the essay. We have to recognize this in his choice of such words as hoover (i.e. “enough money to hoover up paintings”), strategic friending (i.e. Part of Stein’s strategy for becoming famous), Yoda (i.e. He uses the Star Wars character to say Stein “had one linguistic trick and like Yoda it was”), swanning (“Stein modeled a familiar figure still swanning the galleries of cultural capitals around the world: Intellectually infantile, cheerfully amoral, profoundly insecure and nakedly ambitious.”). I have studied Stein for a long time, seen the exhibit, and read Barbara Will’s book “Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma.” Therefore I can say I am more embarrassed over Kennicott’s writing than Gertrude Stein’s and both authors can be judged on their behavior if you will, but that’s part of the outside story relative to whether the writing has literary and cultural merit.”

The commentator turns out to be Karren Alenier, the author of a modern Stein opera, who paid attention reading the article. You can see in the comment thread how many buttons were pushed –maybe yours too. And mine.

I wanted to comment as well but lo and behold, after only 22 comments, the Post shut down. “Comments are closed.” What? In the era of unlimited web space we are told we can’t participate? Is this a new form of censorship? As it happened, the great majority of comments expressed distaste and dismay over this below-the-belt attack. A reason to shut down the faucet?

Here is my comment that was shut out from the Washington Post:

It would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic — 100 years of male whining over the one woman who represented the birth of modernism, wrote the line that is the most quoted line of English poetry of the last 100 years: “(A) rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and who had the chuzpah to say aloud, “I am a genius.” Moreover, she was queer! This has always been too much for her male competitors and commentators, and still is, as we can see in the Washington Post review of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.. Are we having an era of post-Pound? Post-Joyce? Post-Woolf? Guess not, dear Mr. Kennicott. We are having an era of Gertrude Stein — the only one who is in fashion in our post-modern age.”

I’ve said it before: More, much more needs to be said about the lies, distortions, myths told and told again about Stein. About Stein and Hitler, Stein and Modernism, Stein and France — French politics, French history–, Stein and her survival in Nazi-occupied France.

Stay tuned.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 78

Gertrude Stein a “Collaborator“, a „Nazi“?

Questions abound. Suddenly everyone asks about Gertrude Stein’s whereabouts during WW2. How come she stayed in France when France was Nazi-occupied? Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she and Alice get the treatment of enemy aliens (i.e. Americans) like Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company, who got rounded up in Paris and taken to the Vittel detention camp? Why didn’t they get deported like other Jews, other lesbians, other unwanted people? Were they protected somehow and for some reason? Was their collection of “degenerate” art, all those pictures by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, left behind in their apartment in Paris, protected too?
The same questions were raised many times before in Stein biographies. A few years ago they were raised loudly by Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, and the answer has always been the same: Stein’s close friend and frequent visitor, Bernard Faÿ, who turned collaborator during the war, allegedly protected them. When Malcolm’s book came out in 2004, nobody cared.
Suddenly this is not good enough. An urgent, belligerent need to question Stein started with criticism of the exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein and with a few loud-enough voices accusing the curators at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of hiding facts and protecting Stein’s image by not properly addressing her war survival. (It doesn’t seem to matter that the catalog addresses the war chapter at some length.)
Suddenly there is great concern from certain academic corners. A new book – Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay and the Vichy Dilemma – tries to place Stein under an x-ray examination that makes her look guilty before tried (She is not invited to defend herself.) At a museum panel, local historian Fred Rosenbaum gets “extremely worried” about Stein. Visitors and bloggers who have never before read or studied Stein are enraged by certain details they snap up from the agitation around them: What? Stein had a Nazi friend? Stein said Hitler ought to get the Nobel Peace Prize? How scandalous! Stein a collaborator! Worse, Stein, a Nazi!

As I said before in my blog, Jewish humor is lost even on Jewish commentators when Stein, in an interview with NY Times Magazine in 1934, recommends Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize, just as Freud, in my argument, “recommended” the Gestapo with the same perfect irony. People don’t bother to look at the interview by Lansing Warren even though it can be found online, and don’t note that the interviewer points to the laugh and “impish” look on Stein’s face as she brings out this outrageous proposition. Isn’t this the way Jewish humor works?
The “fact” that makes people most hysterical, is that Stein made an attempt to translate Pétain’s speeches. Pétain was every French person’s hero after Verdun, and he was Stein’s and most French people’s hero again when he saved Paris and most of France from the total destruction that had just been witnessed wherever the Nazi war machine had crossed a border. French people had seen the refugees running from Belgium. “…grandmothers holding dead babies in their arms, women with parts of their faces shot away, and insane women who had lost their children, their husbands, and all reasons for living.” (in Charles Glass, Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation, 2010) They had seen the beginning of the end when Orléans was destroyed by the Germans. Yes, Stein was a conservative to the point that would make her a perfect mid-line Republican today. She said it repeatedly in her 1939 portrait of the French, Paris France: “I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free. And so France is and was.”
So how can a radical avant-gardist at the same time be a traditionalist, a conservative, even perhaps reactionary? Just as well ask the question: how can a radical avant-gardist like Picasso turn communist after Stalin’s show trials, gulags and mass murders?
It’s like the voices accusing her of staying in occupied France are complaining that Stein didn’t have a crystal ball to foresee what would happen under the Vichy Régime that chose Pétain as their prime minister. Was she supposed to foresee that her friend Faÿ, who was highly respected as an academic and author in the States and had in many ways helped her career, would turn collaborator? That her stay in the Zone Libre, where American Jews lived freely, especially if they were over 65 years old, would be eliminated by Nazi Germany in Nov. 1942? That she and Alice would need special protection?

Vittel detention camp

Friendship was the only thing in wartime that could make or break your life, and we know about Stein’s unusual talent for friendship. Friendship was much more important to her than politics. According to her, no serious writer could be interested in politics. Did you know that Slyvia Beach was rounded up in Paris in 1942 and deported to the Vittel detention camp, but set free in 1943, when her lover Adrienne Monnier turned to a friend with SS connections (a collaborator!) to save her? That the same SS sent her beloved assistant Francoise Bernheim to Auschwitz to die? Did you know that Sylvia Beach, who lived in Paris at the hub of international connections, did not hear about the death camps until Polish women at the camp opened her eyes? You begin to open your eyes to the complexities of the situation. When you know that two thirds of French Jews survived in France during the war, you begin to understand that Gertrude and Alice had reason to hope that staying in the country, among friends, with a vegetable garden, might be the best place to survive. Stein does not write about death camps, it is true, and isolated in the deep countryside for years, refusing to listen to the radio, one can only wonder if she got the news at all in Occupied France. She describes in detail what the first days and weeks of war were like in an article published in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1940: “The Winner Loses: A Picture of Occupied France.” She expresses the same feelings toward the Nazis that her French neighbors felt, deep fear and loathing and a profound sadness about France.
Yes, Gertrude and Alice were afraid. They got many warnings to leave. But how would they emigrate (to near-by Switzerland, as was suggested) without being able to take their beloved dog? How would they fare as an aging couple in a new place, among strangers?
“And then Italy came into the war and then I was scared, completely scared, and my stomach felt very weak, because – well, here we were right in everybody’s path any enemy that wanted to go anywhere might easily come here. I was frightened; I woke up completely upset. And I said to Alice Toklas, ‘Let’s go away.’”
They asked all their friends and neighbors: “’Well,’ said Doctor Chabout, reflecting. ‘I can’t guarantee you anything, but my advice is stay. I had friends,’ he said, ‘who in the last war stayed in their homes all through the German occupation, and they saved their homes and those who left lost theirs. No,’ he said, ‘I think unless your house is actually destroyed by a bombardment, I always think the best thing to do is to stay.’ He went on, ‘Everybody knows you here; everybody likes you; we all would help you in every way. Why risk yourself among strangers?”
“’Thank you,’ we said, ‘that is all we need. We stay.’’’ (“The Winner Loses”)
Even protected and helped, anything and everything could have gone wrong. The Gestapo came twice to look at the degenerate art in their Paris home. Again it was friends, this time in Paris, among them Picasso and their neighbor friend, the painter Katherine Dudley (perhaps also Faÿ), who helped and took care of their apartment (by then in rue Christine) with all their art inside.
In their second country house, in Culoz, Italian soldiers were billeted under their roof. Germans were milling in Bellay, their next-door town, and roaring on their motor-bikes through the village of Bilignin.
In Wars I Have Seen, Stein’s diary-like memoir of those years, Stein does not seem to have any sense of being protected; she has a sense of pervasive unreality and anxiety. But as the war turns, by 1943, she declares herself increasingly enamored with the resistance, la Résistance, and keeps excitedly reporting about local successes of the Maquis. She is now clearly anti-Vichy. She passionately writes, “The one thing that everybody wants it to be free… not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, none of these things they all want to feel free, the word discipline, and forbidden and investigated and imprisoned brings horror and fear into all hearts, they do not want to be afraid not more than is necessary in the ordinary business of living where one has to earn one’s living and has to fear want and disease and death… The only thing that any one wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.” And please note: she did not write this book in hindsight. It got smuggled out of France before the war was over, and Stein didn’t add or change a word of it when it was published — to great success — in 1945.
When you read Stein’s war writings you can’t have any doubt that this is a profoundly apolitical person writing, someone with no idea, no interest in politics, parties, ideology; she is only interested in the day-by-day ardent task of staying alive, finding food, and taking active part in the survival and personal life of her country neighbors.
Translating Pétain? Even Barbara Will, who would love to condemn Stein, even she is baffled. She doesn’t know what to make of it, because Stein didn’t really do it. She translated a number of speeches, yes, but into a language that is unreadable. As we know from computer gobbledigook, word-by-word translations don’t make sense; they are ridiculous. And that is exactly what Stein did.
Here are some examples Will gives:
“’Telle est aujourd’hui, Français, la tâche à laquelle je vous convie’’ becomes ‘This is today french people the task to which I urge you.’ An idiomatic phrase such as ‘Le 17 juin 1940, il y a aujourd’hui une année’ becomes ‘On the seventeenth of June 1940 it is a year today.’ ‘Ils se méprendront les uns et les autres’ — a speech denouncing Pétains’ critics – is translated ‘But they are mistaken the ones and the others.’ Syntax is distorted: a speech describing the refugees from Lorraine notes the abandonment of ‘le cimetière où dorment leurs ancêtres’; Stein translates this as ‘their cemeteries where sleep their ancestors.’ Even the term ’speech’ is avoided: ‘Discours du 8 juillet’ becomes ‘Discourse of the 8 July.’’’
Will ponders that perhaps Stein had such an admiration for the old man that every word of his had to be honored in and of itself. What a laugh. Maybe Stein wasn’t fluent in French, we are tempted to ask. She had spent almost four decades in France and had written and published in French. And what about her English? Stein, the recent bestseller author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas unable to write English? How about Stein unwilling to write English? How about just pretending, using a fool’s cap the way she had with her comment about Hitler and the Nobel Prize? Rendering these speeches unreadable and unpublishable? Taking on the task to begin with might have been an act of friendship toward Fay. Perhaps it even was a bargaining chip to do it, or to pretend to do it. None of it makes Stein what we today understand under the term collaborator.
We don’t know what she intended. The mystery remains and even Barbara Will can’t will the answer. She can only interpret the bits as she chooses, making Stein look bad. But Stein as a modernist was one of the first to know what a post-modernist should know even better: that reality itself is in the eye of the beholder.


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Gertrude Stein’s Opera FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS in San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a little silly and naïve,” and was it? Four Saints was supposed to be a highlight of the two landmark shows on Gertrude Stein – Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde (both discussed in these pages). In a nine-week run the exhibitions attracted over 400,000 visitors. (Only Chagall drew more people in the history of SFMOMA, I was told.) A whole flurry of lectures, classes, panels, performances marked the “Summer of Stein,” and the new production of Stein’s first operatic collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson, premiered in 1934, was eagerly awaited.
Read the review at http://www.scene4.com/1011/renatestendhal1011.html

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 77

27, rue de Fleurus September 2011

Usually the glass door only allows a glance into the far-away courtyard, well locked away by a modern door code – not like in my old Paris days, when all you had to do was push the door button and sneak past the concierge.
But magically, a Monsieur distingué came out just at that moment and politely held the door open for us. It was once again a strange feeling of moving through time, more so than ever, having just looked at all the photographs of rue de Fleurus in the SF exhibitions. The covered passage Stein and Toklas had built in order to get from their apartment to the atelier unempeded by the Paris weather, had been changed by later inhabitants, making it difficult to recognize the corner. But interestingly, the name on a discreet door bell today is still a Jewish name. (More photos on my Facebook page…)

Later that day, at the café restaurant Ma Bourgogne, at Place de Vosges, Kim and I met with Elizabeth Lennard, artist of film and video installtions, whose new documentary “The Stein Family, the Making of Modern Art” will play at the Grand Palais during the Paris run of The Steins Collect, starting in October, as I already mentioned in my last post. It will be distributed in the U.S. by Microcinema International (http://www.microcinema.com). If you are like me you are already missing The Steins Collect, the onslaught of modernism shown at SFMOMA. And if you can’t catch it again in Paris (I can’t either), Lennard’s DVD will bring it all back.
Have a look as some of her images and très avant-garde plays on film: http://elizabethlennard.com/Elizabeth_Lennard.html
Elizabeth and two other friends, filmmaker Emmy Scharlatt and painter Sonja Hopf, pointed us to a “must see” exhibition at the Jeu de Paume: photographs be Claude Cahun, another revolutionary modernist like Stein, although twenty years younger.

Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) was perhaps the first performance artist/photographer of modern times, a forerunner of gender-bending body and peformance artists like Cindy Sherman in the seventies. Sherman (in the French Wikipedia) is still regarded as a “pioneer” of post-modern photography. We had no idea how late Sherman was, in fact!
What Stein did in writing, using all the possibilities of the Enlish language to circumvent gender and dissimulate her disadvantages of being a woman, Cahun did in her obsessive mise en scènes for her own camera. Her self-portraits subvert gender at every turn, presenting her as man, woman and everything in between and beyond. Like Stein, she does it with wit and irony, sometimes making fun of gender roles (comically posing as a body-builder), sometimes turning herself into romantic-erotic metamorphoses of princes or pirates in her very own 1001 Nights, and most often she seems deadly serious. She not only cut her hair short (Stein did it in 1926) but shaved it off completely. Her pale look (in a dark undershirt with bound breasts) leaves her as indistinct as an alien, an insect, or the marble “Sleeping Muse” by Brancusi.
Like Stein, Cahun had the unconditional support of a female life-companion, artist Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe), her stepsister with whom she had fallen in love at age fifteen. The two artists, with their male or male-sounding names, worked together on their photographs (sometimes double portraits) in the twenties; then Cahun, who also published her writing, joined the Surrealists and started working with photomontages and collages. Like Stein and Toklas, Cahun and Moore lived together their entire life, but these two apparently did it as artistic equals, without any apparent role division.
One other difference: Cahun and Moore were politicized and actively provoqued and sabotaged the Nazi occupiers on the island Jersey, where they had stayed during the war. Their brazen acts of resistance, trying to inspire German soldiers and military personnel to desert, got them a prison and execution sentence by the Gestapo. While Gertrude and Alice were “liberated” by the Allies, Claude and Marcel were saved from execution – to their frank regret — just in the nick of time.
It remains to be seen if French people draw parallels and distinctions between these remarkable avant-gardists, Stein and Cahun, and their life-companions.
More about Paris France to come, when I am less land-locked in the French provinces, at the Loire, with no DSL connection (another, more tedious trip backwards in time). Stay tuned.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 76

SFMOMA window display

“Gertrude Stein gone gone is gone,” to paraphrase the American press. Is it really true that she is gone? Stein had become a San Francisco neighbor, someone to say hello to across the street, back and forth between SFMOMA and CJM with a stop at Peets in between. Suddenly to have lost her presence, Gertie all packed up and shipped to DC, seems unreal. The long Summer of Stein being over, I was able to take my nostalgia to Paris for a few days. Did it help?
I keep thinking of moments that stand out for me in this Summer of Stein. There was the complaint often heard, the question often asked when I gave a talk or salon: how did Stein and Toklas survive the war? How come the Contemporary Jewish Museum hardly mentioned it? How come Seeing Gertrude Stein didn’t look at this Jewish question par excellence? The controversy brewing over Stein’s being protected by a Vichy collaborator even exploded in a panel discussion where I had to come to her defense against wild accusation of Nazi sympathies by local author Fred Rosenbaum. I maintain there is a slew of misunderstandings, and that the new book on the topic, Barbara Will’s “Unlikely Collaboration” is heavily tendentious and tries to grind an axe against Stein (like Janet Malcolm in her vicious Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, and other authors before her). But that deserves a post on its own, stay tuned.
On a more charming note, at my North Beach Gallery Canessa salon, an audience member told the story of visiting the site of Nathalie Barney’s parallel salon to Stein’s, and getting her caretaker, Berthe, to show her around long before Paris Was A Woman filmmaker Greta Schiller arrived with her crew. I imagine this audience member had stepped into an ancient limo at the strike of midnight that day…
Another member reported she used to have Stein’s quote “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” on her bedroom wall already as a child, and her father told her there was nothing special about it — anyone could have made that up. Ah well, but nobody did, did they? Not even Shakespeare with his “rose by any other name.” Google counts some 1, 221 rose poems in Western literature, and they are long and they are short, but only one of them recreates the rose as the modernist and post-modernist rose of our time.
What also stands out for me, no matter how much you know and have read about Stein: there is always another treasure trove to discover. Did you know that in the last 15 years some 30 academic studies have been published on Stein — and 70 dissertations written on her? One of them, Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein’s Avant-Garde Theater by Sarah Bay-Cheng, reminded me that there are some 70 plays written by the author! Just in time, on my Paris visit, I met artist/performer/filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard who has done many of these plays and even plans to produce one at the end of the Paris run of The Steins Collect at the Grand Palais: a play with 500 characters! Who but Stein could have come up with such an idea? How is Lennard going to solve that little casting hurdle? Employ the audience!

Photos Louise Kollenbaum

In Stein’s Operas and Plays you can see for yourself, and you can also read up on Four Saints in Three Acts as you won’t have understood more than a few words in the Yerba Buena performance of the “opera installation,” sung without supertitles and lacking the kind of direction that would have let you in on the fun and wit of it. The veritable Stein opera, as I said in my last post, happened next door to The Steins Collect, at SFMOMA, in David Clearbout’s video piece, “The American Room” which had all the radical modernist qualities Stein would have called “peaceful and exciting.”
I confess that my nostalgia made me rent the old hippy movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas with Peter Sellers as a stiff who needs some hash brownies to get a life. Very sweet and silly and just right to console one after having seen Midnight in Paris a few times too many.
And finally, the good-bye in San Francsico was sweetened for me by learning that museum gift stores do sell books: all together nearly 1000 copies of Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures flew off the shelves, straight into the Summer of Stein…


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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 75

Put on your running shoes and take a bag of patience: lines will be HUGE this weekend – the last days before Seeing Gertrude Stein and The Steins Collect close in SF (See my previous posts). These are the biggest shows ever at both museums (only Chagall beat out the Steins in SFMOMA’s history). Some 400,000 visitors, I heard from the administration. A record. The right time for a new look at modernism — modernism incarnate in Gertrude, Gertie, Gert. You’ll have to run far after Sept. 6 to still catch them: the next stop for Seeing Gertude Stein is Washington, DC — from Oct. 14 to Jan. 22, 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery (perfect place for a portrait of Stein). The Grand Palais in Paris is next for The Steins Collect, but if you can’t run across the Atlantic (no Jesus, anyone?) there’s New York! The Metropolitan Museum of Art will pick it up in February.
If you’ve missed Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts (with a good dozen saints and four acts), don’t despair. It wasn’t up to snap; it wasn’t exciting like Stein ought to be. The true modern excitement happened right next door, on the same floor at SFMOMA — the video installation called David Claerbout: The Architecture of Narrative. Clearbout works in a Steinian spirit of narrative, architectural narrative, unhinging the media of video and photography and, at the same time, he, too, warps the experience of time in the most fascinating asthetic ways. I sat, mesmerized, through the 24 minutes of “The American Room” (2009-2010), a piece that shows a singer’s recital in an intimate concert room at a place like the White House, surrounded by security guards, security cameras, and American flags. You can read an inspiring article by Kenneth Baker to get a glimpse: Claerbout uses ideas, formal principles and even language (he is “caressing” images) the way Stein used them. I will have to go back for a second look to write more about it before it closes on Sept. 6 as well.

Original vest worn by Gertrude, possibly created by Alice

If you miss all of it, you can still partake in Fashion à la Stein. My friend Shana Penn of the Taube Foundation recently pointed me to a French clothes boutique, Lilith, on Fillmore that carries a line of Stein-inspired gilets and hats and cuffs and other fabulous design inventions for girls who are boys and bois and girls and girls à la Alice. http://www.sanfranciscodress.com/records/page/850/lilith.html — have a look. It’s more expensive than the museums and catalogues, but looking doesn’t cost a penny!
Lilith is fun and will make you want to go right back to Paris, or at least to Midnight in Paris at a cinema near you.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 74

Stein’s Opera Four Saints in Three Acts
It had to happen. A let-down after the high excitement of the landmark Stein exhibitions. (Although there must have been others duds in the myriads of lectures, panels, and even performances surrounding the shows.) But a performance of Stein’s famous 1934 opera was supposed to be a high point. Expectations ran high. Through the SFMOMA grapevine I had heard rumors that the largely uninspired music by Virgil Thomson would get a blast of refreshment: the modern composer Luciano Chessa, the performance group An Ensemble Parallèle, and even a video and drag performer from New York, Kalup Linzy, would take the dinosaur in hand and breathe new life into it. Cooked up in a co-production between SFMOMA, An Ensemble Parallèle, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where it was performed, this great idea ran smack into the Virgil Thomson Estate. There was no permission to touch the saintly score or even break it up for some relief from its repetitive Baptist hymns, all-American choruses devoid of any polyphony, and naive oom-pah-pah marches. Four Saints must apparently be performed untouched! Anything radical and irreverent can only be smuggled into the staging or else, has to be added as a separate piece. As an “opening act,” a mere hors d’oeuvre, the new work, titled A Heavenly Act, with its beautiful queer circus waltzes, microtonal passages à la Satie and quasi-Gregorian chants seemed lost in space. Nothing much happened on stage: a dozen monks in hoods shuffled about, whispering and mumbling text (supposedly by Stein). Kalup Linzy was fun when he sang a “soul” number to a perilously disharmonic orchestra accompaniment, but otherwise he had nothing to do but shuffle around with wings, looking like a big, surly turtle or, with sun glasses on the video screen behind the stage, like a big menacing turtle. There was a lot of obvious “saintly” behavior, singers looking upwards blissfully or downwards thoughtfully, both onstage and composed to iconic groupings in cloudy black and white video sky-scapes on the screen.
See a moment of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoYc-5bZMPA&feature=related
But where was he when a big, menacing turtle was really needed? He ought to have been Saint Teresa of Avila. Or Saint Teresa II (Stein put in two so that there could be a duet!). Or at least the male lead, Saint Ignatius Loyola. But no. Among the nice and charming singers of the “real” opera, representing throngs of saints (among them a “Saint Settlement,” “Saint Plain,” and “Saint Answers”!) there were no characters coming to life. They were just … singers. Saint Teresa – clearly meant by Stein and Thomson to be a stand-in for Saint Gertrude Stein — was a flute-voiced, petite blonde (Heidi Moss). Oh dear.

Why saints? Why “four saints”? Virgil Thomson thought saints were in, Stein loved Spain (Picasso!) and Avila (one of her nicknames for Alice was Theresa), and she loved the black-and-white magpies hovering flat against the sky over Avila, just like nuns in habits: there you have the interest of a Jewish author in Catholicism. However, what Stein really had in mind was the saintly work of artistic creation (and maybe artistic martyrdom), and so we wouldn’t stray far from the path to surmise that the “four saints” in truth were Gertrude and Alice and Virgil and his lover, the scenarist of the opera, Maurice Grosser. Imagine my surprise then, that there wasn’t the slightest allusion to any queer subtexts in the staging by Brian Staufenbiel, artistic director and conductor Nicole Paiement, and their Ensemble Parallèle. The modernist take on Four Saints had ended with A Heavenly Act, and now we were down to the pedestrian realm of getting through the rest. Even though Ensemble Parallèle had opted for the shortest (oratorio) version of the opera, calling it Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, it proved still way, way too long. In the course of writing this first opera, Stein seems to have had doubts herself about the length of the thing and when to stop. “How do you do,” the libretto asks. ”Very well I thank you. And when do you go. I am staying on quite continuously. When is it planned. Not more than as often.” Haha. Her saints repeat repeatedly, “Ask Saint Therese how much of it is finished. Ask how much of it is finished.” A question also very much on my mind.
Yes, it’s a challenge to perform an abstract opera with such unsophisticated music and make it interesting – just what the original très gay collaborators of Virgil Thomson and his sensational all-black cast (knowing how to move and dance on a stage!) managed with panache. You can see it in the filmed excerpts playing at both exhibitions, and you can tell right away why this was a huge success and why Four Saints had the longest Broadway run of any opera in American history to that date. It was wildly eccentric, sexy, outright queer, colorful and demented. Why do it again, unless you have a truly new idea?
The singers were doing a fine job, concentrating on singing instead of moving, getting through the nonstop, nonsensical Steinese wordiness — to not much avail, however, as one didn’t understand a thing. This, of course, is hardly different from any other opera sung in English, only here it’s worse as there is no story, drama, symbolism or other known reality to hang onto and perhaps guess what is being sung. Well, there are passages that get across all right because they are repeated twenty times, like the line “Once upon a time,” but as no story follows you are soon on your own again. Lost were many lines that are really funny when you read the text: “If it were possible to kill five thousand chinamen by pressing a button would it be done. Saint Therese not interested.”

If there was not enough production money to offer supertitles, why not invent some scenic equivalent of written words that would have brought home a joke or two? Why not sometimes use sprechgesang, the half-spoken voice, instead of staying glued to the written score with the earnest application of a grade-school pageant?
The only slight laughs in this stagnant “installation” were created by occasional recognizable bits of Steinese poetry: “Then. Then. Men. When. Ten. Then. When. Ten. When. Then. Then.“ (etc.) Or, “How many acts are there in it. Ring around a rosy. How many acts are there in it. Wedded and weeded. Please be coming to see me. When this you see you are all to me. Me which is you you who are true to be you. How many how many saints are there in it. One two three all out but me.” (etc.) Friendly chuckles met the pigeons-on-the-grass-alas, performed by St. Ignatius with a doo-wop chorus of four male saints behind him doing some sort of synchronized steps. And there was laughter about the “circus”-announcer-characters Commère and Compère who spell out the numbers of acts and scenes in the wildly absurd disorder Stein had divined for them: “Act I. Scene II. Act I. Scene VII. Act II. Scene II. (‘Would it do if there was a Scene II.’) Scene III and IV.” Etc.
I counted one detectable idea for each of the acts (thee are in fact four in Stein’s text). In Act I, Saint Teresa rolls in on a beautiful white Spanish baldachin bed on a white stage. In Act II an unspeakable act does occur on this bed when she dies from a euthanasia injection. (Don’t ask why.) In Act III Saint Ignatius performs a funny autopsy on her body (a dummy doll), while Saint Teresa (still alive in the libretto) twitters on from “above.” He gets his comeuppance on an improvised electric chair in Act IV. Bravo, I want to say. More aggressive handling, even yes, more killings, and more radical dissections could have done miracles to these saints.
Stein’s text is so free and open to interpretation and action that there is no limit to contemporary, post-modern poetic or even politically relevant stagings. Anything goes. This was the intention and this was how it was done at the opening, in 1934, as Stein expert and author Steven Watson (Prepare for Saints, 1995) charmingly explained in a gallery talk at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Back then, it was done brilliantly. It created a society fashion frenzy. It was the most written-about production in America in ten years. It was the first major Gesamtkunstwerk in America in the vein of Wagner and Diaghilev.
What he told us was mouth-watering, but then we went off into the desert.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 73


READY FOR SLUTWALK? (cartoon by Tom Hachtman)

San Francisco had its first SlutWalk last Saturday, and was Gertrude Stein along for the ride?
Good question. Controversial question, as most questions are regarding Stein.
Now that the avant-garde has collectively declared “Gertrude Stein is Twitter”, would she have been amused by the “deets” posted online? By “No means no yes means yes wherever we go however we dress”? One thing is for sure, she would have had the right outfits already in 1908, those sexy body wraps and curderoy robes held together by only one pin – one delicate, moveable pin for the moveable feast.

My friend, cartoonist Tom Hachtman, even ventured out where no man had gone before. We have to admit, however, that Stein was not very interested in the cause of women. She was fully emancipated quite on her own, way ahead of the Victorian minions around her. She had her own cause and she was winning it, hands down, coming out as the most famous and most influential of all modernist writers in America. Yes, even “coming out” as much as that was possible before the term was invented. Therefore, when she died in 1946, she might not have felt the need to join in the seventies when feminists rediscovered her “genius” and marched through Paris to “Take Back the Night.”
Now, had it been “Midnight” – as in “Midnight in Paris” – who knows?
What, we may wonder, would she have done with the word SLUT? She had already slyly played with the word “gay,” writing A Long Gay Book (in addition to her many lesbian odes). She would no doubt have been highly amused by the new usages of “queer.” Both gay and queer have overtones and undertones of meaning that allow Steinian word play. But does SLUT?
At least she would have created a new noun (she loved using nouns and repeating them, which she called “caressing”) for those who walk on SlutWalks. A Twitter word like “Slutter,” to start with. Let’s paraphrase her “Completed Portrait of Picasso” with its “shutters shut” – and we don’t have far to walk:
“Slutters slut and open, so do queens. Slutters slut and slutters and so slutters slut and slutters and so, and so slutters. And so slutters slut and so slutters slut and so slutters and so. And so slutters slut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.”
There you have it. Unless you think Stein would have been on the opposite side of the controversy, turning a foxy eye at our present “raunch culture” of women’s and girl’s (un)dress, staying at her desk at home, mumbling under her breath something about “internalized abuse of Girls Gone Wild,” or “pornification of protest.” And rolling her eyes, writing a sequel to her long, long poem “Patriarchal Poetry,” something like “Patriarchal Sluttery”?

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 72

The “Summer of Stein” in San Francisco coincided with the “Summer of the Ring.” Gertrude Stein and Richard Wagner are certainly odd bed-fellows and yet, there they were, one of them at the museums with two epochal shows(see my previous posts), the other at the opera house with the sixth-ever complete Cycle of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera, heating up the atmosphere with equal excitement. (You can read my Ring review at the magazine Scene4. Two geniuses who have a few things in common, one could say: a monumental ego and a monumental oeuvre; a provocative sexuality running through their work – lesbian for Stein and somewhat “queer” for Wagner; a gift for attracting controversy; ambivalence, in Stein’s case, about her assimilated, upper-class Jewishness, and hysterical antisemitism in Wagner’s. Wagner’s antisemitism wasn’t taken seriously by his contemporaries, Laurence Dreyfus reminds us in his elegant new study, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (Harvard University Press). Wagner’s tirades were considered ridiculous even by the likes of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, the founders of Zionism. With his effeminate passions for silk and lace (he wore pink satin underpants in order to compose), his heated romances with King Ludwig of Bavaria and other men, and the immoral and “degenerate” characters of his operas, Wagner was paradoxically seen as the epitome of what was considered “Jewish” by many of his contemporaries.
And Stein? Most people have been wondering about her way of dressing, too, starting with Hemingway who told us that his wife tried “not to stare at the strange, steerage clothes Miss Stein wore…” And more and more people do wonder about her relationship to her own Jewishness. The exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) raises the question how she and Alice, two American Jews and lesbians, survived in Nazi-occupied France, and how their collection of “degenerate art” survived as well?

The questions of Stein’s Jewishness are turning urgent. They recently overshadowed the charming performance at the CJM, Laura Sheppard’s “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle.”

Sheppard did a staged reading from a little book of the same title that came out in time for the Summer of Stein, penned by a youth friend of Alice B. Toklas, critic and writer Harriet Lane Levy, who moved from San Francisco to Paris and met Gertrude and the other Steins together with Alice, in 1907. Her memoir is not exactly brilliant (although there are some amusing and spicy andecdotes). We are miles away from The Autobiography of Aice B. Toklas, but in Sheppards graceful peformance the text shone.
The ensuing panel discussion, however, did not seem interested in “Paris Portraits.” Panel member Fred Rosenbaum, whose book Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area also came out just in time, zoomed in on Stein and the Jewish question. He expressed such worry about Stein’s alleged allegiance with the French fascists that alarm descended over the audience. Gertrude Stein with fascist leanings! The room was packed, and people listened with shock and awe to Rosenshine’s indignant report about Stein recommending Hitler for the Peace Nobel Prize! She even wrote to the Nobel Committee, in 1938, to make the case for Hitler!
Yours truly had to jump to the public defense of Gertrude Stein who wasn’t there to defend herself. Expressing gratitude for the fact that Jewish culture is a culture of debate and argument, I argued that this so-called recommendation for Hitler can’t be taken seriously. I repeated what I had said in my blog post # 61, where I raised the provocative question, “Was she a Hitler fan?” I repeat:

“In 1934, New York Times Magazine reporter Lansing Warren went to interview the bestseller author in Paris for an article titled, ‘Gertrude Stein Views Life and Politics’. ‘I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,’ she says, ‘because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.’”

This is a joke if ever there was one. Well, there was one, of a similar ilk. When Siegmund Freud’s supporters tried to pay his way out of Vienna in the last minute, in 1938, the Germans demanded a declaration that he had been well treated by them. Freud declared: “Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen.” “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Freud a fascist, like Stein? Only if one loses sight of Jewish humor.
I reminded my readers in my post: “One always has to work for answers when reading Gertrude Stein. But in this case, the interviewer left us a clue: ‘When she laughs, as she often does at the mental confusion produced in her auditor by many of her remarks, her face and body become mobile, and there is something impish in her expression.’”
The debate at the CJM went on. Had anyone seen Stein’s recommendation to the Nobel committee? Nope. Not Fred Rosenbaum who was terribly worried about it. I hadn’t either. Shouldn’t she get the benefit of the doubt? What if her letter was another example of this kind of Jewish humor?
In any case, I can report that my ardent defense brought me a generous hand-shake from Fred Rosenbaum and happy smiles and kudos from audience members as they walked out.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 71

Fresh off the press of cartoonist Tom Hachtman

Lesbians holding hands a No-no at “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”

Two hand-holding women were forced out of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco by a zealous guard. In San Francisco! Where did this dinosaur of a guy come from? Some Texas or Arizona hinterlands? The scandal made press headlines, created a big public outcry, and today a hand-holding action at the museum proves in modern-day color what we have always known about Gertrude Stein: Even a hundred years later, Stein is always good for a controversy. She is still too avant-garde for some and many Americans.
Yes, the guard has been replaced, the museum has strongly condemned the action and confirmed its usual explicit support for LGTB culture and its large LGTB audiences. Not much has been said about the sad political reality that in today’s world, a Jewish museum has to employ a security firm that creates an atmosphere of unpleasant toughness with the suspicion that anybody in the galleries might be a terrorist. A lesbian terrorist. OMG, even two of them! Hand in hand!! In an exhibition that is already a reason for paranoia — with its content of a woman as the head of the avant-garde, Stein, a lesbian, starting an artistic revolution, and all the queer culture surrounding her…
One of the victims of the dinosaur had made a public statement in the SF Chronicle:
July 22nd, 2011 from The San Francisco Chronicle:
Letters to the Editor:
What would Gertrude do?
I am coming out as one of the two women asked to leave the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco for holding hands last Sunday (“Guard’s crackdown gets out of hand at museum,” C.W.Nevius, July 19).
The director and regularly employed security staff at the museum all acted swiftly and with compassion regarding the homophobic incident. I am a supporter of the museum and hold the individual security guard (and his temp agency) responsible, not the museum.
I also appreciate the support of so many people standing up for our right to engage in appropriate (and frequently displayed by our straight counterparts) acts of public affection.
This was just one (and in the bigger scope, small) homophobic act by one individual, and while it was a distressing and awful experience, it most importantly calls attention to homophobia in its bigger arena — issues concerning safety.
I refer to this last year’s prevalence of young gay suicides (an outcome primarily brought about by homophobic bullying) and the verbal and physical abuses that gays in this country face all the time.
I hope that the column and ensuing dialogue around it can spark some productive action and positive effect. And everyone should go see the Gertrude Stein exhibit that we were viewing at the museum — it’s nothing short of brilliant.
Kaia Wilson, Portland, Ore.

And the Chronicle’s Leah Garchik’s column read:
“The administration of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, engulfed in unwelcome publicity when a contract security guard told two lesbians that holding hands was not allowed there, is making lemonade from that lemon.
In conjunction with “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” Sunday’s previously scheduled LGBT Family Morning – to feature performances by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, the Voices Lesbian Choral Ensemble and Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco – has been declared Hand Holding Day as well. Visitors are encouraged “to come stroll hand-in-hand through the galleries, no matter who you love, and to celebrate the LGBT families in our community.”
“Making lemonade out of that lemon” is a good thing, also for Gertrude Stein who will now have even more visitors lining up at the scene of the crime. She would have rolled her eyes – or closed them in horror at the fall-back into the Victorian age she had just helped to unhinge with her avant-garde writing.
That said, in all the photographs I studied and collected for my photobiography “Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures,” I only found a single photograph showing Gertrude and Alice touching in public, in front of a camera!
This photo, by the way, by the great gay photographer Cecil Beaton is displayed in all its beauty not just in my book but also in the museum show. Go have a look — and make sure to hold hands while you take it in!

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