This is an essay I wrote in 2002 which was accepted into the third anthology for the National Academy of Writing [NAW] graduate diploma course, The Spiral Path [2010, available on Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spiral-Path-2010-Anthology-Writing/%5D, where I was a student while teaching full-time at Birmingham [UK] City University. I have also given it as a reading/presentation, accompanied by an image of the portrait.
On Seeing Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein
for the Second Time, June 9, 2002
by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
I had seen it once before.
Teaching full time, but immersed in my dissertation research on early twentieth century writers’ salons, I went to New York City to take in the Lincoln Center production of Four Saints in Three Acts and stay at the Algonquin Hotel, thereby killing two writers’ salons with one tax-deductible research trip. My New York friend told me not to miss the Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and rent the audio tour by comedian Steve Martin. I figured it would be nice a complement. Only while waiting in line did it occur to me that Pablo’s portrait of Gertrude would probably be included.
Just a few feet in—there she was. She took me by surprise. After three years of reading and writing about her and her friends, knowing every intimate detail of their lives, seeing the reproduction in so many ways in so many different books, and then—there she was. But the difference between seeing it in her living room and here at MoMA was that at the end of the twentieth century there was a line of people eager to get through the exhibit to the gift shop, so I had to keep moving.
This time, six years later with the Ph.D. behind me, I am at the end of a summer London trip with my college students. Before we left, I had found a review of the Tate Modern’s Matisse-Picasso exhibit in the Wall Street Journal, and I gave it to them as part of their pre-departure readings. I put it high on my “to do” list while here, and was pleased that at least one of the students was enthusiastic about it as well. I’m not sure the rest of them even read it or knew what the Tate Modern was before they got here.
So many things seem like such a priority when you arrive in a new city; most of them fade into, “You know what we haven’t done yet…” The three days my husband came to visit, he was tired from traveling. We went to the Tate Modern, but Matisse-Picasso was sold out, so we wandered through the free galleries. Better to tackle the big one when we have the energy.
By the end of the two weeks, when my husband had gone on to Dublin and the students to their next adventure, I found the energy, but I was short on cash. Ah, two days by yourself in London. Just relax, save some money, do laundry.
But thanks to a last minute bit of largesse from my brother in Ohio, I was able to rally my forces and plan the Last Day in London that I had dreamt of. What to do first? Wait in the TKTS line? Go for high tea? Why not get to the Tate first thing and see whether tickets will be available?
Arriving at 10:30 am I get a ticket for the 11:45 entry time with no problem. After scouring the bookshop, I line up with the others and decide once again to indulge myself in the audio tour. We all walk around with our long gray plastic sticks up to our ear, taking in the British interpretation of the complex relationship between these two giants of twentieth century art. What a nice touch to have the actual authors read the quotes from their works; what an interesting touch to have Picasso and Matisse’s quotes read with British accents.
Once again, it is not until I enter that it occurs to me that I might get the chance to see Pablo’s interpretation of Gertrude up close. We start with 1904 when she supposedly introduced the two, although they probably met on their own earlier. Paris in the twenties was a small town.
I make my way through the first room. There is a huge brown-gray Picasso of a boy and a pony. The description next to it says that it was one of the first paintings Gertrude and her brother Leo bought from the struggling Spaniard. In those days, he couldn’t give them away; now people pay ten pounds a head just to walk by them.
It’s not one of my favorite Picassos. But it occurs to me that Gertrude probably loved the joke of a having a young male’s exposed genitalia hanging in her salon.
And the frame. This is probably the original frame. Her partner Alice B. Toklas said she learned about the paintings by dusting them. She dusted this frame. I’m close enough to touch 27 rue de Fleurus. But in a 21st century museum—no touching. Alice got to touch them every day.
I continue through the years of the Matisse-Picasso friendship. I make my way into the room where Gertrude will be. I flirt with her at first, walking around the room to see the paintings in the order they are discussed on the tape. I listen to the audio description of all the rest, watching her out of the corner of my eye. I make my way over to read the description next to her on the wall. It gives a slightly different version of Picasso’s summing up of his masterpiece. When their friends claimed it didn’t look like her, he said, “It will.” And it does.
Eventually I maneuver over to her corner. I stare at her for a while. I try to remember if this feels and looks the same as it did in MoMA. This is less rushed. I have nowhere to go; no commitments. I find an empty spot on the bench a few feet away and sit. She watches me. Her big dark Spanish eyes, the ones he couldn’t get right at first and only painted in when he returned from a trip to Spain, after she was gone from Paris, look at me.
I decide I will leave, because I will come back. I continue with the tape, and the descriptions on the wall, wallowing in the early 20th century, the birth of modernism, the tension between two great talents trying to outdo each other. Matisse paints a nude. Picasso paints a bigger nude. Touché!
By the last room, they have become friends. Matisse has died, leaving behind his odalisques for Picassos to paint. The room is full of Picasso’s acrobats, performing feats not possible in nature, and Matisse’s cut outs, blue shapes floating off the white pages. It is like entering the rehearsal room for a circus.
I get to the end of the exhibit and tape, saunter past the door that says “Exit. No re-entry,” and double back around to see her again. Back through the years, through the nudes, the mistresses, the African art. Back to the beginning, in Paris, when “everybody was so young,” as Sara Murphy said. Past the paintings inspired by the theatre sets both Matisse and Picasso designed for Diaghilev’s ballet with Sara’s husband, Gerald Murphy.
There she is. Once again she is at the center, just the way she was always described in her salon at rue de Fleurus. The others buzz around her, looking at the paintings, waiting for a word of wisdom, some insight into the craft of writing, the creative process. Only now there is no Alice to decide who will be allowed into the inner circle and who will be kept away. No Alice to sit with the wives. Anyone can come, anyone with ten pounds. They all circle around her, and then move on.
I stand close, along with others, still hooked to their gray plastic sticks. There’s the frame that Alice dusted every day. When she looked at the painting, did she think of her soul mate, still asleep upstairs, having stayed up late the night before re-inventing American literature? Or did she think of art?
I wait until a seat opens up on the bench again and sit down. I can’t tear myself away from her. Her red brooch is nestled in her white scarf; a gesture to femininity. Her hair is piled high on her head. In a few decades she will tell Alice to cut it short and she will look like a Roman emperor.
Why can’t I leave? Is it because she was born in Pittsburgh too? Although she was only there for the first six months of her life, we Pittsburghers are very proud. Was it because my mother, who never even went to college, used to tell me about her? “She said ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ and she became famous.” “Why would someone become famous for saying that?” I asked. The book I found in our basement, The Third Rose by John Malcolm Brinnin, became part of my bibliography for my dissertation, long after my mother had died.
Behind me I hear two young children coming with their mother—God bless her for bringing (well-behaved) two and three year olds to a Matisse-Picasso exhibit. As they approach, the boy says in a clipped British accent, “Look at the man.” “It’s a woman,” says the mother. “What makes you think it’s a man?” “It looks like a man,” he says, pointing out the obvious to us adults.
When Gertrude and Alice visited the Stein cousins in Baltimore on their triumphant American tour in 1934, after they left, her nephew asked his mother, “I liked the man but why did the woman have a moustache?”
I look up and notice that the ceiling surveillance camera is trained on my spot. Is there a British minimum-wager sitting up there wondering why this American has been sitting in one place for so long? If the painting is stolen tomorrow, will they try to find me?
I look back at the painting. The large right hand, so strong, so muscular. It’s about to rise from her knee. In about fifteen years she will raise this hand and point to Ernest Hemingway and say, “Begin over again and concentrate.” He will toss out all he was working on and begin to write about the young people he knows in Paris. A year later he will write a devastating parody of her work, making them contestants in the same ring as Matisse and Picasso.
She leans forward, about to instruct.
Tell them, she says. You have to tell them. Get to work. No more excuses. Begin over again and concentrate. Find a way to tell them.
Tell them that art is not a frill. Tell them why I am important; why Picasso is still important. Make them understand. Find the right words, the way I did. Find the way to tell them what I was trying to tell them. Get going.
She looks as though she is tired of trying to get people to understand.
I sit a while longer. I know if I look at my watch the spell will be broken, so I just sit. I look at the frame. I wonder who dusts it now?
Eventually I get up to leave. Her eyes follow me. When I’m flush with the wall, exiting the room, I glance back. I can only see a bit of her. Tell them, she says.
I walk back again through the years, through the First Great War, then the occupation of Paris in the Second. Picasso stayed; Matisse went to the South of France, Gertrude and Alice to Bilignin in the west. Past the cancer and the odalisques. Past the dancers, the bathers, and the acrobats. I hand in my gray plastic stick—should I thank him? The young Londoner in the orange shirt, surrounded by the great art of the mid-twentieth century, whose job it is to collect gray plastic sticks?
I go to the gift shop. I buy the postcard. I treat myself to the fudge brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the cafe.
After a while I went out and left the museum and walked back to the hotel in the rain.