An uncompromising literary experimenter and a self-proclaimed genius, Gertrude Stein was an American author and poet who rejected the linear writing characteristic, replacing it with a spatial, process-oriented literature. Her experiments in poetry and prose still puzzle structuralists.
Best known for her modernist writings, extensive artwork collecting and a literary salon in Paris, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator whose questioning of narrative conventions deeply impacted some of the biggest names in modern writing history, such as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson.
Remembered mostly as someone with an interesting personality whose works are seldom read due to their style, Stein was also known for her big personality:
Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.
Stein's dense poems and fictions, often devoid of plot or dialogue, may not have done well with fans of classicist literature, but they deeply influenced many avant-garde artists who eventually shaped the early 20th century.
Aside from her literary experiments and artistic theories, Stein was also an early icon of feminism - openly homosexual, she lived with her companion Alice B. Toklas from 1912 until the time of her death.
Since her works were not published in the order in which they were written, it's quite difficult to chart the progression of her oeuvre. In fact, reading her work in general can be a challenging endeavor due to its lack of conventional narrative rules. Interestingly, her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of Stein's life written in the person of Toklas, was a conventionally composed piece of writing.
Due to these reasons, Stein's legacy as a writer remains a highly debated matter. Still, even if her importance as a literary figure is relegated to a secondary role, her influence as a commanding personality, a theorist and an influential arts pundit should not be underestimated.
Here, we will tell the story of her dedication to art through her own quotes.
Editors’ Tip: Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein
This collection, a retrospective exhibit of the work of a woman who created a unique place for herself in the world of letters, contains a sample of practically every period and every manner in Gertrude Stein's career. It includes The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in its entirety; selected passages from The Making of Americans; Melanctha from Three Lives; portraits of the painters Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso; Tender Buttons; the opera Four Saints in Three Acts; and poem, plays, lectures, articles, sketches and a generous portion of her famous book on the occupation of France, Wars I Have Seen.
Featured images: Gertrude Stein Writing at Her Home, via turtlepointpress.com; Gertrude Stein sitting with Alice B. Toklas. via historythings.com; Gertrude Stein statue (Monument in New York City), via flickr.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
Gertrude Stein relocated to France in 1903 and, as soon as she arrived, the American writer submerged herself in the bohemian community of the avant-garde. Backed by the guidance of her brothers Leo and Michael, she quickly established herself as a central figure of the Parisian arts world.
Although Stein never even attempted to follow their paths as a painter, she did try to realize similar goals with her writings to which she dedicated herself in earnest at the age of twenty-nine.
From the moment she arrived in Paris, Gertrude Stein fell in love with the City of Light. Other than the successful lecture tour she held in the United States in 1934, Stein never left France, not even during the horrors of the World War II.
Paris was the place that suited us who were to create the twentieth-century art and literature.
Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself.
Featured image: Gertrude Stein, Picture from 1935, via historythings.com
Stein was one of the most crucial advocates of shaping novel forms of expression and making a conscious break with the past. The salon she shared with her brother at 27 rue de Fleurus was a popular place of gathering for talented young artists wishing to free themselves from the shackles of artistic tradition.
She did not contribute to it by making artworks, but she did extensively develop modern thought on a theoretical level and challenge her readers’ preconceptions about language and narrative.
Although no single approach to interpretation is viable for all of her works, Gertrude's writings were in many ways the written equivalent of the things avant-garde artists were trying to achieve with paintings.
The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.
There is art and there is official art, there always has been and there always will be.
Artists do not experiment. Experiment is what scientists do; they initiate an operation of unknown factors to be instructed by its results. An artist puts down what he knows and at every moment it is what he knows at that moment.
Featured image: Horst P.Horst - Portrait of Gertrude Stein Wearing Balmain Suit, 1946, via theredlist.com
Although publishers made sure to avoid her experimental writings while critics dismissed them as incomprehensible, Stein's theories did interest some of the most talented writers and artists of her time. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson were among those exposed to her literary quest Gertrude described as searching for an exact description of inner and outer reality.
A big supporter of Cubism, Stein attempted to parallel the movement's theories by concentrating on the written illumination of the present moment, often relying on the present perfect tense in doing so. Her use of slightly varied repetition, simplification and fragmentation can also be associated with the author's views on modern artworks.
Of course, the fact Stein and her brother accumulated numerous artworks also greatly contributed to her status within the Parisian scene. By early 1906, Leo and Gertrude Stein's studio possessed many paintings made by the likes of Henri Manguin, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Honoré Daumier, Henri Matisse and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Since she was consistent in her attempts to reach the reader's consciousness in ways most writers did not, Stein plumbed areas of communication that can be linked to many crucial avant-garde movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism. Besides words, Gertrude incorporated humor, sound, sex and unpredictable structures with such craft that it would not be an overstatement to say she was a pioneer of postmodernism.
Art is the pulse of a nation.
Art isn't everything. It's just about everything.
The subject matter of art is life, life as it actually is; but the function of art is to make life better.
The contemporary thing in art and literature is the thing which doesn't make enough difference to the people of that generation so that they can accept it or reject it.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso - Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, via wikimedia.org