Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 70

So What ARE They Wearing for Gertrude Stein?
San Francisco Chronicle’s Leah Garchik reported in the Datebook the other day a comment overheard at a birthday party: “She doesn’t know Gertrude Stein! What kind of a lesbian is she?” I replied to Leah, “And we have to ask: What was she wearing?” Leah wrote back that she was going to the museum and “do some people watching, to see what they’re wearing for Gertrude!” The obvious thing to do.
I am waiting for Leah’s verdict. But meanwhile, I can report that San Franciscans are fashion literates. Continue reading

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 69

Emergeny Fashion: What To Wear???
This is a question I hear a lot from both women and men as the Summer of Stein descends upon San Francisco. Dressing up for Gertrude Stein, for the grand openings at SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, for the coming performances, shows, and panel discussions has become a hot topic ever since Danielle Steel told us that San Francisco has no style. “There’s no style, nobody dresses up—you can’t be chic there. It’s all shorts and hiking boots and Tevas—it’s as if everyone is dressed to go on a camping trip. I don’t think people really care how they look there; and I look like a mess when I’m there, too.” Ah, but I spotted one of the curators of Seeing Gertrude Stein at the museum opening sporting high-fashion ruffles in Matisse green! And the other one at the SFMOMA opening in a cropped fog-jacket in black, black Abercrombie pants and elegant leather sneakers! Even if you can’t match that, take heart, San Francisco, and take a lesson from your daughter Gertrude Stein. Stein is hot, Stein is chic. Stein is always an inspiration.

But she’s a challenge, too. Always has been. How to do justice to a genius who was taken one day for a gypsy, the next for a peasant, for an emperor, Caesar, or (in Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories) for a “granny”?
A few notes of advice may be in order.

Of course you will want to get as close to her genius as you possibly can. Don’t believe for a moment in the warning she gave Hemingway, “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures. It’s that simple. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode…” Mon oeil, as the French would say – you must be kidding. You may already be wearing Stein mode on your skin in one of Katrina Rodabough’s artist-designer dresses with imprinted texts by you know who. But if you own a nice big bathrobe in curderoy (or if all fails, dark brown terrycloth), simply hold it together with a coral hat pin, and you are in. You can see the original Steinian hat pin (that served same-said purpose) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum — in case you need encouragement. Or get out your heavy winter velvet (the summer weather will help you): with some luck and a jaunty little ski cap you will match the evening suit Pierre Balmain fashioned for Gertie. Just imagine!

If you are a boy or a boi or anything undefined (like Gert him/herself) your best bet is the vest. Don’t worry about the obvious. Stein herself learned early on from her prof William James, “Complicate your life as much as you please, it has got to simplify.” Any vest will do, you can’t go wrong: quilted, embroidered, stitched and hand-woven, with appliqués made by your lover who also types your manuscripts. Tenderly buttoned goes a long way. You don’t necessarily have to dig up the burlap skirt your grand aunt Frieda still stores in her steerage trunk. Feel free with your shirt: striped or flowery, any will do. Your true daring will show in the brooch, okay, even on top of your cravate, if you must. Antique, however, is a must, a brooch that rings the bell of genius in those who matter in your life.

A note of caution, however, if you are not a boy: careful with roses! Never more than four. Three may create the impression that you don’t know your lines. Two is acceptable, one is good: the woman is a rose. None is even better. “If not why not.”
The further you arrive at your extremities the easier it gets. Duck shoes are in easy reach whereever you look, thank Gd (or, depending, health fashion). But the “Delphic sandals” Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond used to cobble for the Steins? You with the feminine foot are in luck. Greek sandals are whereever you look, too, due to our very own post-modern “raunch culture” (you may have to google the term). Don’t fear: Gertrude (“Toasted Susie is my icecream”) would be amused and want to talk to you.

The only problem is accessories. Was Gertrude Stein ever ever seen with a handbag? You know the answer. Only if you absolutely have to, I can console you. Fashion once again shows you the way with the little summer snapster called “Three Lives.”

Which brings me to the one item that is a passe partout. Anything, truly anything goes when it comes to the hat. If you need to reassure yourself that this is so, walk through the exhibition one more time and focus. At the latest, when you hit upon the New Yorker cartoon from 1934, you know you can trust yourself that “It is as pleasant as that to have a hat, to have a hat and it is as pleasant as that.” That’s it. And now go and be pretty. Have a ball.

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 68

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Several people had tears in their eyes, myself included, walking in a trance through the vast rooms of SFMOMA, in the stream of some 600 people who had gathered at the Donors’ opening party and walk-through. “The Steins Collect” is not just a major San Francisco art exhibition, it’s the most ambitious exhibition SFMOMA has ever shown, as director Neil Benazra proudly announced. In one word: it is huge, both in mass and in importance. The very hour when modernism was born, a good century ago, has never been so densely packed and complete in one space. Continue reading

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 67

I took my third long walk through the exhibition, another treasure hunt. Again I was delighted to see how well Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is really SEEING her, seeing and responding and echoing her contemporary relevance. Pointing out: Stein has something to tell us — today! Just look and listen!
This time, I focused on the last part of the show, “Story 5: Legacies”, which is small but saftig. The art work prickles with invention and political zest. Continue reading

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 66

Yes they did it. They pulled it off. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, arm in arm with the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in DC (where the show will go from San Francisco) made it happen: the long-awaited exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, the first-ever attempt to portray Stein in an exhibition, is a marvel of a show.
A dozen years in the making, the exhibition is as “peaceful and exciting” as Gertrude could have wished for. Everybody – scholarly Steinians, would-be-Steinians, “Gertrude Stein who?”-Steinians, youngsters, hipsters and the rest can and will and must enjoy the portrait of the genius who has enlightened, puzzled and troubled our world for a good 100 years. Continue reading

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Loving Repeating

Recently republished (see Why Do Something # 23), my photobiography is being offered by KQED as part of the May 2011 pledge drive. A timely offer, together with tickets to the museum openings about Stein…

When the book first appeared and won the Lambda Award for biography, in 1994, everybody who was anybody reviewed it. What Elle Magazine said about it is worth repeating:
“Who was Gertrude Stein? The social and artistic dominatrix of the lost generation? The literary founder of modernism? The sensual companion of Alice B. Toklas? A ‘dictator of art’ or an ‘infant prodigy’? Stein, whose freedom with the written word ‘liberated language from the nineteenth century,’ remains a heroine hard to grasp.
Now, as the century turns, Renate Stendhal’s Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures (Algonquin) takes a good look at the slippery genius. After an astonishing, playful essay, the book opens into a revelatory combination of quotes, clips, and 360 photos of Stein and her wildly brilliant circle. The subtle minimalism of Stein’s cool face, repeating page to page like her own rhythmic sentences, brings a nuanced embodiment to our imcomplete sense of her. From a serious, chin-in-air profile of ‘Gertie’ at age three to a chin-in-hands portrait taken at age seventy-two, the woman is ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’” Bethany Schneider, ELLE MAGAZINE

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 65

San Francisco In the Spring With Gertrude Stein
Soon the museum gates will open and entire families will stroll into “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” and “The Steins Collect”. What will the kids make of the fat lady who doesn’t sing?
Do they need help? Looking at the books out there, it is maybe the parents who need help. Or maybe not. There aren’t many helpers. Adult witticism and playful attempts to approach Stein don’t always fly with kids who are easily bored with teachers and well-meaning preachers of art or avant-garde. They sniff out in an instant if someone is talking down to them. Continue reading

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 64

Picasso was planning to go to Rome with Jean Cocteau to work on the surrealist ballet Parade with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He ran into Cocteau on the Blvd Montparnasse. “As we are going on a honeymoon together, let’s announce our honeymoon to Gertrude Stein,” Picasso suggested. They went next door to the Rue de Fleurus where Picasso said to Gertrude: “Meet my fiancée, we are leaving for Italy.”
The story (told by Cocteau in the documentary Autoportrait d’un Inconnu) implies that such a joke was very welcome at the Rue de Fleurus, a detail that feeds into my thesis –often discussed in this blog – of Gertrude and Alice’s highly liberal attitudes toward sex, in particular gay sex. Continue reading

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 63

“Not everything can be about everything”– Stein, the worms and the butterflies.

In his last and final book, The Memory Chalet, brilliant historian Toni Judt reminisces about teaching students at the time when feminism, gender and sexual harrassment were discovered.
“When discussing sexually explicit literature—Milan Kundera, to take an obvious case—with European students, I have always found them comfortable debating the topic. Conversely, young Americans of both sexes—usually so forthcoming—fall nervously silent: reluctant to engage the subject lest they transgress boundaries. Yet sex—or, to adopt the term of art, ‘gender’—is the first thing that comes to mind when they try to explain the behavior of adults in the real world.
“Here as in so many other arenas, we have taken the ‘60s altogether too seriously. Sexuality (or gender) is just as distorting when we fixate upon it as when we deny it. Substituting gender (or ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ or ‘me’) for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a projection of self onto the world at large.
“Why should everything be about ‘me’? Are my fixations of significance to the Republic? Do my particular needs by definition speak to broader concerns? What on earth does it mean to say that ‘the personal is political’? If everything is ‘political,’ then nothing is. I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s Oxford lecture on contemporary literature. ‘What about the woman question?’ someone asked. Stein’s reply should be emblazoned on every college notice board from Boston to Berkeley: ‘Not everything can be about everything.’”

Stein is on everyone’s mind this year, the year of her renaissance. Looking at last week’s New Yorker, I could add she is even on the mind of worms. At least she is, according to my favorite cartoonist, Roz Chast:

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Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 62

“Don’t Think You Can’t Be Senile At 22″ 

This week’s New Yorker reports on “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” at the Whitney, the retrospective of an important African-American artist who made use of the “negro sunshine” Stein coined in her early novella “Melanctha” (see my previous post). The author of the review, Peter Schlejdahl, has this to say about it: “Stein was being fondly indulgent of black folks, in an old vein of white cluelessness.” It’s a striking formulation. Is it true? Was she clueless? Was she clueless as a fairly young person and less clueless later? Is there an irony at play,  highlighted in Ligon’s post-modern, post-irony neon “advertisement”? Could “negro sunshine” be the same Steinian irony that is often subtle and hard to detect, as I pointed out in her statement that “Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize”?

To add a shadow of a doubt to the “old vein of white cluelessness”, here are some things Stein had to say (two decades later) about immigration:

“Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for advice, I always say, ‘Don’t think it isn’t possible to be senile at 22.’ It is even very difficult to keep from becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one’s self open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other people tell you and being protected form this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life ands truggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one.

“That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition. (…) The French may not like the competition of foreigners, but they let them in. They accept the challenge and derive the stimulus. I am surprised that there is not more discussion of immigration in the United States than there is.We have got rid of prohibition restrictions, and it seems to me the next thing we should do is to relax the severity of immigration restrictions.” (Excerpt from a New York Times interview by Lansing Warren, 1934)



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