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. 

Immersed in my dissertation research on early 20th century writers’ salons, I went to New York City to see the Lincoln Center production of Four Saints in Three Acts and stay at the Algonquin Hotel, thereby knocking off two writers’ salons with one tax-deductible trip.  My friend told me not to miss the “Picasso Portraits” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and be sure to rent the audio tour by Steve Martin. A nice complement. Only while waiting in line did it occur to me that Pablo’s portrait of Gertrude would be included.

Just a few feet in—there she was. She took me by surprise. After three years of reading about her and her friends, knowing every intimate detail of their lives, seeing the reproduction in so many different books, and then—there she was. But here at MoMA people were eager to get through to the gift shop, so I had to keep moving.

This time, six years later with the Ph.D. behind me, I am on a summer London trip with my college students. Before we left, I clipped a review of the Tate Modern’s Matisse-Picasso exhibit and I put it high on my “to do” list.

So many things seem high priority when you arrive in a new city; most of them quickly fade into, “You know what we haven’t done yet…”  The three days my husband visited, 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 my stay, my husband off to Dublin and the students off to their next adventure, I found the energy, but was short on cash. Ah, two days by myself in London. Just relax, save money, do laundry.

But thanks to a last minute bit of largesse from my brother in Ohio, I rallied my forces to plan the Last Day in London I had dreamt of. What to do first? Wait in the TKTS line? Go for high tea? Why not get to the Tate early and see whether tickets are available?

Arriving at 10:30 am I get a ticket for the 11:45 entry time with no problem. I scour the gift shop, then line up with the others, once again indulging myself in the audio tour. We get ready to enter the galleries with our long gray plastic sticks up to our ears, listening to the British interpretation of the complex relationship between these two giants of 20th century art. A nice touch to have the actual authors read the quotes from their works; an interesting touch to have Picasso and Matisse’s quotes read by Brits.

Once again, not until I enter does it occur to me that I might see Pablo’s interpretation of Gert up close.

I make my way through the first room. We start with 1904 when she supposedly introduced the two artists; they probably had met on their own earlier. Paris in the twenties was a real small town.

To the left is a huge brown-gray Picasso of a boy and a pony. The description says it was one of the first paintings Gertrude and her brother Leo bought from the struggling Spaniard. Then, he couldn’t give them away; now people pay ten pounds just to walk by them.

Not one of my favorite Picassos. But I realize Gertrude probably loved the joke of 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 early years of the Matisse-Picasso friendship. I make my way into the room where Gertrude is. I flirt with her at first, experiencing the paintings in the order they are discussed on the tape. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. I move close enough to read the description next to her on the wall. When their friends claimed it didn’t look like her, Picasso said, “It will.” And it does.

I maneuver closer. I stare at her for a while. Does this feel and look the same as it did in MoMA? This is less rushed. I have nowhere to go; no commitments. I sit on the bench a few feet away. 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—look at me.

I decide to move on, because I will come back. I continue with the tape, and the descriptions on the wall, wallowing in the birth of Modernism, the tension between two great talents fighting to outdo each other. Matisse paints a nude. Picasso paints a bigger nude. Touché!

By the last room, they have become friends. Matisse dies, leaving behind his odalisques for Picasso 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 drawings of the theatre sets both Matisse and Picasso designed for Diaghilev’s ballet with Sara’s husband, Gerald Murphy.

There she is. Once again, at the center, the way she was in her salon. The others buzz around, 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, and then move on.

I stand close, with the others, still hooked to our gray plastic sticks. There’s the frame that Alice dusted every day. Did she think of her soul mate, still asleep upstairs, having stayed up late the night before, re-inventing literature? Or did she think of art?

I can’t tear myself away. A seat opens up on the bench and I sit down. Her red brooch is nestled in a 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? 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 became famous.” “Why would someone become famous for saying that?” I asked. The Third Rose by John Malcolm Brinnin, which I found in our basement many years ago, became part of my dissertation research, long after my mother had died.

Behind me I hear children with their mother—God bless her for bringing (well-behaved) three year olds to a Matisse-Picasso exhibit. The boy says in a clipped British accent, “Look at the man.” “That’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 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 notice that the surveillance camera is trained on my spot. Is there a British minimum-wager up there wondering why this American has been sitting in one place for so long? If Gertrude is stolen tomorrow, will they try to find me?

I look back at the painting. The large right hand, so strong, so muscular, is about to rise from her knee. In about fifteen years she will raise this hand, point to Ernest Hemingway and say, “Begin over again and concentrate.” He will toss out all he was working on and write about the young people he knows in Paris. A year later he will publish 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. If I look at my watch the spell will be broken. I look at the frame. I wonder who dusts it now?

Eventually, reluctantly, 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 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 east. Past the cancer and the odalisques. Past the dancers, the bathers, 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 20th 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 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.

Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. Check out the blog about what they were doing 100 years ago this month, or the daily postings to find out what happened on this date. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

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