August was quite a month, and if you had told me towards the end of July that I would be spending the week before Labor Day up in Bolinas, in Northern California, resting and relaxing and recuperating, I would have been very confused. Life takes its twists and turns, however, and an odd one happens to be that I was reading Janet Malcolm’s book on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas just as we stumbled into San Francisco and saw that there were two Gertrude Stein shows downtown, side by side.
We rushed into “The Steins Collect,” at SFMOMA. The museum game, like everything else, is tough these days, and putting together a big summer show isn’t so different from releasing a tentpole movie or publishing a bestseller. It’s easy to see years of work and thought and collaboration, all to get the turnstiles going. The show is a blockbuster (headed for New York), grand and expansive and suggestive, and yet extremely intimate. It tells the story of Leo and Gertrude establishing themselves in Paris, and Leo taking the leap into buying avant-garde art, purchasing a “horrifying” Matisse in 1903. The show works hard to convey a sense of the process and the reality of the young Steins, including brother Michael and his wife Sarah, buying and living with radical and tranformative artwork covering their walls in Paris during the early years of the new century. In the background, gratifying in the Bay Area, are the California Jewish roots of the Steins, showing that the enterprise was a transatlantic outsider aesthetic, with the “family business” seamlessly moving from investing in streetcars to modern art. Another important point of the show is to view the family and its collections as a whole, without privileging Gertrude.
I suppose that blockbuster museum shows are all about creating context, which this does superbly, but one gets the sense that the Steins and Gertrude are stealing the light from Picasso and Matisse. Even so, the show reinforces the primary Gertrude Stein narrative as a priestess of the avant-garde and Modernism, an artistic being of the new century who herself became classic and imperial in the 20s and 30s when she achieved her own celebrity status. Her bold alternative sexuality is equally iconic and classical, in the end. There is little or nothing about Stein’s literary experiments and accomplishments, nothing fitting her into the literary movement of Proust and Joyce and Woolf, nothing showing her as a secondary figure with a largely unread and at the time unpublished early Modernist magnum opus, let alone any comment on gender of Modernism issues. All of the lit roads still lead, here, to the popular, “audience” Autobiography. The narrative of the art work is too forceful and much too strong.
It took a couple of days and some Weds-Thurs. morning closure false starts before we made it around the corner to Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, where there was another Gertrude Stein show. This one was Five Stories, and it was focused on Stein herself, with five different broad stroke views of her life: backgrounds, friendships, homes, writing and celebrity–I think that was it. These summer shows have ended, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the first to suggest whipping through the minor show at the Jewish Museum first, before going to the big one over at SFMOMA. Doing it backwards is anti-climactic, and it was that much worse for me because I had started by reading Janet Malcolm. The 5 stories show would make a great quick Stein intro, as it does a good job of sketching the whole of her life and work, but there’s no depth to it, and it’s small and cramped visually, and completely blown away by the epic artwork on the walls around the corner. The emphasis on the Stein family in the SFMOMA show expands on the backgrounds section. I was looking for more in the writings section, where it was nice to see copies of Stein’s books at least. The later part of the friendships section was good, and the best part was about Stein’s celebrity and her American tour and the stage work of the late 30s. But everything about the show was complementary, introductory, and fairly second-rate, unfortunately.
And I was looking around for Malcolm’s book and her concern about the Jewishness of Stein and Toklas and their vague and slightly mysterious years at Belinga during World War 2. There was a surprising lack of supporting books at SFMOMA, really just the museum show book and the Autobiography and the Cookbook. Malcolm and her publishers missed the opportunity to sell a good number of books in San Francisco this summer. If I was surprised about SFMOMA, I was rather shocked that Malcolm’s extended study, research, and meditation on Stein and Toklas and their complex partnership, identity, narrative and Jewishness was so glaringly absent from a substantial (even if overshadowed) show at the Jewish Museum. Malcolm’s work and perspective, and her reading of The Making of Americans and the easy step to place it in the context of gender in the development of Modernism is exactly what the 5 Stories show was missing, the material that could have made it essential and truly complementary, rather than minor, bland, introductory and inconsequential. Knowing Malcolm’s work, I was disappointed to see it passed over, that it and the other scholars it was based on were ignored by these shows, and in so many ways we got a big new splash of the same old Stein. But maybe that’s just me, and my own random sequence, moving backwards against a strong San Francisco summer tide.