Fine Steins

Two new shows collect superb examples of the avant-garde art assembled by Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein LAZY AFTERNOON: Henry Matisse's 1910 painting 'Tea' is part of the new show 'The Steins Collect.' 2011 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society; 2001 Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource, NT

GERTRUDE STEIN lived briefly in San Jose, when she was a young girl in the late 1870s, before her family moved to Oakland—not long enough, thankfully, for her to do to us what she did (unintentionally) to Oakland when she quipped, "There is no there there."

She was famed as an eccentric, an oracle and sometimes a joke. It took years before she was celebrated as a writer for finding the pulse of a sentence, making music from repetition just as Philip Glass does.

Gertrude and her brother Leo were discerning art collectors. Their brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, later of Palo Alto, were key in introducing Henri Matisse to America, bringing some 125 Matisses to California in the 1930s.

Gertrude is the subject of two shows this summer. The larger of the two, with photos and furniture, is SF MOMA's The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Leo and Gertrude had some 500 objets d'art in their flat in the 6th Arrondissement. The show reunites that since-dispersed collection.

Leo wanted to paint. He did paint with some skill. Sister-in-law Sarah Stein, who lived nearby, also painted. Her notes are the best account of what it was like having Matisse for an art teacher.

Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways around World War I; Gertrude's lover, Alice B. Toklas, had moved in, and three was a crowd. Besides, Leo hated Picasso's newest style: "cubico futuristic tommy-rotting" was one dismissal, according to author Diana Souhami. Picasso's cultural bomb Les Demoiselles d'Avignon took the closeness of brother and sister as collateral damage.

The show features some well-known works from the museum's own collection, such as Matisse's 1905 Woman With a Hat, the beloved 1908 Girl With Green Eyes and the curvy 1901 bronze Madeleine 1. In fauvist pieces from the early 1900s, Matisse is freeing himself from the spell of Cezanne. The planes of colors, sometimes combed with parallel lines, grow brighter and more unreal.

Opposing the argument that Matisse knows nothing of angst is the 1913 graphite sketch Portrait of Harriet Levy, apparently done in hope of a quick $100. The artist is in an angry mood, and he has a frowning, disenchanted patron for a model.

From MOMA in New York comes the portrait of Gertrude by Picasso, a picture famous for giving Picasso trouble. "I can't see you any longer when I look," he complained to Gertrude. Finally, after some 90 attempts, he balanced the forces that made up Gertrude. Here she is, shrewd and plain, looking Spanish, monkish, surrounded by browns and turkey reds. "For me it is I," Gertrude said of this painting.

There's a disturbingly erotic work by Flix Vallotton, with the nude in a more blatant version of the reclining, cache-sexed pose of Olympia and the Venus D'Urbino. She has a catlike look of satiation on her face, and the splay of her fingers suggests how she's been amusing herself.

Matisse's Blue Nude (1907), from the Baltimore Museum, returns after its centennial appearance in the Bay Area, at the Matisse: Painter as Sculptor show. Burned in effigy after it made its U.S. debut at the 1913 Armory Show, this twisting, startling figure seems ready to break out of two dimensions.

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum nearby is Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. The show isn't so much about the art of Stein but Stein as art, with modern tributes and numberless portraits. Most are done by the painters she hired after Matisse and Picasso grew too expensive to purchase.

Looking at them in a row, you know how Picasso felt trying to sum up Stein. In her 50s, Stein sat for painter after painter. She was stout and berobed, with her hair cut short. She demonstrates an impassivity that made contemporaries think of Roman emperors, but might be more like Edward Curtis' photographs of Indian chiefs. In all the pictures, one sees the faith Stein had in her judgment: It was a faith these two shows share and justify.

The Steins Collect Runs through Sept. 6, SF MOMA

Seeing Gertrude Stein Runs through Sept. 6 at Contemporary Jewish Museum

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