San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/ Yale University Press, 452 pp., $75.00; $50.00 (paper)
Gertrude Stein endures. More than a hundred books about her have been written during the past decade or so and lately she made an appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. She remains a figure of fascination for scholars of queer studies, a saint in the broader gay community, exalted as a pioneer of poetics and sexual liberation, and as the librettist of wry, cryptic texts set to Virgil Thomson’s crazy-quilt music in Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, both recently revived to warm reviews.
That said, even today few people manage to get through her books and poems, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas aside. Unread as always, Stein’s novels and poems nonetheless appear regularly in fresh critical editions. The latest printing of Ida from Yale University Press includes Stein’s “How Writing Is Written,” from her mid-1930s barnstorming tour of America, when she reached her triumphant peak of celebrity and made the cover of Time, and also Thornton Wilder’s “Gertrude Stein Makes Sense,” his posthumous tribute to his friend, from 1947, still perhaps the most lucid, down-to-earth aid for the head-scratching undergraduate.
And now comes “The Steins Collect” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after ballyhooed stops in San Francisco, where Gertrude’s family first earned its modest fortune, and Paris, where the Steins made their marks as patrons and salonists. A glamorous, occasionally revelatory affair, sprawled across close to a dozen big rooms in the museum, the exhibition, as Rebecca Rabinow, the Met’s curator, has arranged it, lavishes attention on Gertrude’s remarkable brothers, Leo and Michael, and her equally remarkable sister-in-law, Sarah. Michael and Sarah, husband and wife, who created a salon of their own on the rue de Fleurus, became Matisse’s greatest devotees, collecting and inspiring groundbreaking work and sponsoring his short-lived art academy. Classroom nudes by occasionally gifted, now widely forgotten protégés like Hans Purrmann, along with a self-portrait imitating Matisse, by Leo, occupy one gallery of the show. The hamfistedness of Leo’s picture speaks volumes.
He’s the tragic hero of the Met show, the brains behind the family’s original impulse to collect new art, a classic case of the self-taught aesthete, and one of those touching, impossible, insecure, blustery, half-cooked geniuses, vainly grappling with the mysteries and injustices of life, whose intelligence exceeded his talents and who labored for…
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