I t is rare that friendship between two volatile tour-de-forces - such as Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein - lasts the vicissitudes of a lifetime. Theirs did, and what’s more, proved an enduring phenomenon, a lively exchange of ideas and inspirations, support, and criticism, that went on to considerably shape Picasso’s legacy as a Modernist. Now, in this fiftieth year since Picasso’s passing, the creative dialogue between the two friends, and its far-reaching influence, is explored in L’invention du langage, a new exhibition at Musée du Luxembourg, opening in September 2023.
In this exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, curators Cecile Debray and Assia Quesnel have amassed a selection of work that situates the friendship between Picasso and Stein in the Parisian avant-garde scene of the beginning of the 20th century, and traces its significance not only in arts and literature, but also in poetry, music and theatre, to the present day. Works by artists ranging from Picasso himself to Warhol, Carl Andre and Bruce Nauman are included, to create a visual and theoretical commentary on the close relationship between Stein and Picasso - and its lasting legacy.
Friendship can be detected in the small details, rather than in the grander gestures.
‘I wish I could convey,’ Stein wrote in her The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which catapulted her to fame in 1933, ‘Something of the simple affection and confidence with which he always pronounced her name, and with which she always said, "Pablo". In all their long friendship with all its sometimes-troubled moments and its complications, this has never changed.’
The expatriate American collector and writer Gertrude Stein met Picasso in Paris, in 1905 to where they both had recently moved – he, then aged 24, from Spain, she, 31, from the United States. Stein must have made quite an impression on the young man because soon after meeting, he asked her to sit for a portrait. She would later claim she sat some 80 or 90 times for this portrait, which if true, is quite long enough to cement a friendship. On Saturdays, after the day’s sitting, Picasso, together with his lover Fernande Olivier, would join Stein at her apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, for dinner. These Saturday night gatherings soon became legendary salons for the Parisian avant-garde.
With enough artworks on the walls to rival a small museum of Modern art, Stein’s salons attracted the elite of Paris's visiting and resident writers, artists, and composers. Picasso was a fixture, as were Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, and Georges Braque. In the twenties and thirties, other members of the American 'lost generation' also found their way to Stein’s salon. 'It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museum,' Ernest Hemingway reported in his story A Moveable Feast, 'Except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs made from purple plums, yellow plums or wild raspberries…. The paintings and the cakes and the eau-de-vie were truly wonderful.'
‘Never mind - in the end she will manage to look just like it.’
But at the core of the dynamic relationship between Picasso and Stein lay artistic energy and exchange. And their bond had had a bumpy gestation. While Picasso had been so struck with Stein's distinctive personality and appearance, the execution of his portrait of her turned into a long drawn-out, occasionally fraught affair. Picasso eventually escaped to Spain, where he pondered the problem of how to capture that ineffable quality he divined in his new friend. Erasing the head, in spring 1906 and starting it again, painting from memory infused with the stylised angles and planes found in ancient Spanish sculptures put him back on track to come up with one of the most iconic and revolutionary portraits of the era.
He was aware it needed not only to do justice to Stein’s larger-than-life personality, but be worthy of hanging on the walls of her apartment, alongside Henri Matisse’s portrait of his wife Amélie and Paul Cézanne’s portrait of his wife Hortense. And the resulting work was extraordinary: Stein's imposing features now rendered in a mask-like face with penetrating eyes, an impressive posture and her hands, prominently to the fore. To friends questioning the remote likeness, Picasso famously retorted that it didn’t make any difference. ‘Never mind - in the end she will manage to look just like it.’ And Stein was also content. ‘For me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me, which is always I.'
Stein returned the favour with a portrait of Picasso - and not just one, but three. ‘A writer should write with his eyes,’ she said in What Are Masterpieces (1940) ‘And a painter paint with his ears.’
She used her own medium, language, to disrupt the page, circling in usual Stein-style around her subject, breaking all rules of narration, like a Cubist painting with its angles and superimpositions. In Stein’s approach, a personality revealed itself through the infinite variations in the way people repeat their gestures and phrases. ‘If I told him would he like it,’ Stein’s ‘word painting’ began, ‘Would he like it if I told him. Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.’
Repetition was a Gertrude Stein trademark. One of her best-known, most enigmatic lines - ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ - transcends word play (eros), with the simple repetition, making a rose blossom into an existentialist statement. This bold subversion of accepted forms demonstrated Stein’s ebullient confidence in her own writing, a confidence easily matched by Picasso’s own self-belief. ‘You all have seen hundreds of poems about roses, and you know in your bones that the rose is not there,’ she wrote. ‘I’m no fool; but I think that in that line, the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.’
But let’s return to those dinners at Stein’s Parisian home, at 27 Rue du Fleurus in Montparnasse. In 1907, Stein met her lover Alicia B. Toklas, who together with Stein ’s brother Leo (and hitherto flatmate) initially formed a common household. Toklas liked to amuse Picasso with experimental culinary designs, covering a fish with mayonnaise and topping it off with red tomato paste and hard-boiled eggs (the whites and the yolks separated), truffles and finely-chopped fines herbes as decoration. When she served her chef-d’oeuvre, Picasso exclaimed at its beauty and then inquired, ‘Should it not rather have been made in honour of Matisse than of me?’
The rivalry between Picasso and Matisse echoed Stein’s own relationship with her brother. (Incidentally, in the early 1950s, Picasso would be enraged when his young son Claude would impishly sign his scribbles and doodles 'Matisse'). Whereas Leo Stein’s tastes gravitated more towards Matisse, Gertrude liked to distinguish herself by championing of Picasso, and indeed, was his first serious collector. In her 1938 Picasso book, Stein claims that she ‘was alone at this time in understanding him, perhaps because I was expressing the same thing in literature.'
The book itself is a beautiful homage to her friend, subverting not only grammar and style but also sense. And the observations are often spot-on. Its main thesis is that creators are the first to be conscious of what is happening to their generation. Stein recounts the story of walking at the beginning of World War I with Picasso on the boulevard Raspail at night and seeing for the first time a camouflaged truck pass. Picasso looked at it in amazement and cried out ‘Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism.’
'In a time when everything cracks,‘ Stein wrote, she and Picasso depicted a reality in which nothing was where it should be, whether in a sentence or a painting. Yet, besides this shared vision, there was a conviviality that came about when both met. And her fascination with Picasso helped shaped a generation of future artists and creatives. Around 19 years after her death in 1946, another ground-breaking American artist visited Paris, excited at the prospect of perhaps meeting his idol, Pablo Picasso. As far as we know Andy Warhol never met the Spanish legend, but left the city delighted, after a wildly successful launch for his Flowers series. What thrilled him most about his visit though, as he later wrote in his POPism memoir, was the thought that 'Picasso must have heard of us at last”.
Curator Cécile Debray discusses the exhibition 'The Invention Of Language' at the Musée du Luxembourg
Why is this the right time to present this exhibition?
At a time when the debate is polarised around the question of Picasso and his companions, on very biographical aspects, I thought it would be interesting to look back at his friendship with avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein and, above all, their artistic complicity around Cubism. It is in this way that we can shed light on the immense legacy of Stein's writing, particularly on the modern and contemporary American art scene.
What was the original aim of the curatorial concept?
The aim was first and foremost to take a fresh look at these two personalities: to re-read Picasso's Cubism through its relationship to the radical poetic writing of an American trained in cognitive science, and the beginnings of psychology. We also wanted to reaffirm Gertrude Stein's role through her intellectual and poetic work, not just as the first collector of Picasso and Matisse. Finally, we wanted to recall the extent to which her verses have left their mark on a certain American theatrical, musical, choreographic and visual arts scene, thanks in particular to the mediation of John Cage.
What was the criteria for including the artists in this exhibition?
We therefore set out to highlight the main artistic currents and groups for which Stein's work, as well as Picasso's Cubism, was important: the New York underground scene of the 50s and 60s (the Living Theater and Fluxus), the Neo-Dada movement around Cage, Johns and Rauschenberg, minimal art with Joseph Kosuth and Andre, and finally, the more contemporary scene that could be described as 'eccentric minimal', with Glenn Ligon or Ellen Gallagher. The works selected all have an explicit link with Stein's work.
How did Picasso value Stein’s writing and influence?
It's likely that Picasso didn't read much of Stein's writings, which were in English. However, he shared much with her and showed great respect for her work, fascinated as he was by the figures of poets. His experimental works - assemblages, collages - and his own poetry, show a great closeness to her.
And what did Stein find in Picasso’s practise that inspired and shaped her own work?
By comparing paintings and texts, the exhibition shows how the analytical decomposition of motifs, the practice of collage and fragmentation, and the iconography of everyday life are at the heart of the painting of one and the writings of the other.