Pablo Picasso-Gertrude Stein: Correspondence. Book Review

Pablo Picasso-Gertrude Stein: Correspondence

Edited by Laurence Madeline and Translated by Lorna Scott Fox

Reviewed by Julie Sara Porter

The early 20th century saw the rise of Modernism, a movement in art, literature, philosophy, architecture and culture which found new ways of self-expression. It was partly inspired because of the rise of urban living and interest in new gadgets and scientific theories. Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, among others, were promoters of this new Modernism.

Literature was saturated with authors who explored the inner thoughts of their characters. They used the stream of consciousness writing and psychological studies to explore the character’s minds which often ran contrary to their outer appearance. Modernist authors wrote frankly about mature topics such as war, social isolation, sexuality, gender roles, racial issues, and mental illness being very explicit and upfront with their views. They said plainly what many previous writers hinted at through imagery and hidden terms.

Artists also tried new things during this time. Instead of making straight portraits and landscapes that show detailed accounts of daily life, Modernist artists favored surrealism, abstracts, or expressionism. They created art that was based on revealing emotion rather than a direct copy. They used color, shape, and lighting to reveal their art. They also portrayed dreamlike images that were symbols rather than actual images.

Two of the strongest most well-known names in Modernism are Gertrude Stein (1876-1945) and Pablo Picasso (1883-1973). Stein was a writer whose most famous works included The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The Making of Americans, and Tender Buttons. Her writing consisted of stream of consciousness thought, rhythmic repetition, and essays that she called “Literature Portraits” that she described as “evoking pure being.” She was also known to host salons in her home in Paris which were who’s who of early 20th century artists, writers, thinkers, and intellectuals. They included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, René Crevel, Henri Matisse, and of course Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso was an artist who was primarily known for his Surrealistic work and for co-founding the Cubist Movement, in which objects are broken up, analyzed, and reshaped into an abstract form to reflect a deeper context than its original shape. His major works include “The Ladies of Avignon”, “Woman Before a Mirror”, “Le Rêve”, “The Weeping Woman,” and “Guernica”.

With two highly creative individuals that traveled in the same circles and had very strong views and internal ways of looking at the world around them, it would not be surprising that Stein and Picasso would become friends. They had an almost 40-year friendship from 1906-1944 in which they frequently wrote letters to each other.

Their correspondence is gathered in a book Pablo Picasso-Gertrude Stein: Correspondence Edited by Laurence Madeline and Translated by Lorna Scott Fox. The correspondence details the Modernist giants’ creative processes, political views, romances, daily lives, travels, and friendships and feuds with other notable people of the era. It is a brilliant study of two people who burst with talent, eccentricities, strong will, steadfast views, and extremely inflated egos.

Stein and Picasso’s friendship began in 1903 when Stein and her brother, Leo, moved to Paris so Leo could begin an artistic career. They collected many works of modern art. Among them was Picasso’s “Young Girl With a Basket of Flowers.” While Stein hated the painting at first, the cheap price of 150 francs won her over, so she learned to accept it. Picasso’s artwork grew on Stein so that by 1906, she and her brother acquired an extensive collection of his art. In gratitude, Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in 1905 and he became a regular attendee at Stein’s salons.

The first few letters are basic where Stein wrote about picking up her portrait and were largely about Picasso and the Steins inspecting various works of art including Paul Gauguin’s and their businesses with various art dealers. Significantly, most of the early letters were addressed to Leo, with his sister as an afterthought. Leo, an art dealer, was prominent in Picasso’s thoughts as he often wrote to Leo about his paintings, how they sold, and asking for money when it was tight.

His correspondence with Leo ended when he broke with his sister in 1911. The split between the Stein siblings was so acrimonious that they did not speak to each other for decades. They split up their art collection with Stein receiving the Picassos and Matisses (as well as “custody” of their temperamental artist friend, Picasso.) After the split, Picasso addressed his letters solely to Gertrude Stein, making the duo closer than ever.

In the absence of Leo, Stein and Picasso developed a sibling-like bond with each other with Stein as the sharp-tongued responsible encouraging older sibling and Picasso as the impetuous hot-headed passionate younger sibling. Stein often sent Picasso money for his paintings and encouraged his artistic style. Picasso often read her work and thanked her for her friendship and dedication. They talked about each other’s private lives and raised concerns about their health becoming a surrogate brother and sister.

As often happens when two people are close, their significant others developed a relationship. While Picasso was with his first lover, Fernande, when he met Stein, their relationship was rocky because of Fernande’s ill health and Picasso’s commitment to art. They broke up by 1910 when Picasso met Eva Gouel.

Stein also had a lover, one her readers are familiar with: Alice B. Toklas. Stein and Toklas met in 1907 and Stein instantly welcomed her to her literary salons. By 1910, Toklas moved in with the Stein siblings and Toklas stayed with Stein after Leo moved out.

Picasso and Stein often included each other’s companions in their letters sending their love to Gouel and Toklas. After a time, Gouel and Toklas began to write to each other.

While their letters are less detailed, they seem more concerned with practical matters than their artistic companions such as Gouel asking Toklas for assistance while she and Picasso were house hunting. The letters imply that as much as they loved Stein and Picasso, Gouel and Toklas sometimes felt the two were often in their own little worlds with their art and writing and that it was good to vent with someone who was equally as grounded in reality.

Toklas and Stein wrote to Picasso and Gouel until Gouel’s death in 1915. When Picasso later married Olga Klukhova in 1918, he did not tell Stein or Toklas until four weeks after it happened. Things were uncomfortable for awhile but Stein began to write to Olga as well and took an interest when Olga gave birth to a son, Paulo and the Picasso’s marital troubles led to a separation. Toklas and Stein remained together until Stein’s death in 1946. At Stein’s funeral, Picasso embraced and comforted Toklas.

Since they were involved with a large circle of friends, many of Stein and Picasso’s letters drop several names of prominent people of the era. Picasso wrote about forgetting to attend one of dancer Isadora Duncan’s recitals. Stein mentioned having lunch with Yvonne Davison, the wife of Jo Davison an American sculptor. Picasso traveled with the writer Jean Cocteau to get away from the ravages of WWI.

Sometimes it’s hard for modern readers to understand who these names are, but Madeline provides us with some handy footnotes to inform us about these people and their relationships with the two friends. Stein and Picasso networked with a wide group of creative individuals who were prominent figures in their day and changed how people saw the world in the future.

Picasso and Stein wrote often about their respective artworks. Picasso sent many of his paintings to Stein such as “Woman Seated at an Armchair.” Often he wrote that he was working on a painting such as one of fellow painter Henri Matisse in “A Group of Jolly Catalans.” He also sent various other works such as “The Architect’s Table” to Stein.

Stein as well dropped hints of her writing in her letters. She wrote one letter explaining that she spent some time writing something. That something would later become The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one of her most important works. Admirers of Picasso and Stein’s works will marvel at being there at the moments of creation, when these signature pieces began and how they were refined.

The friendship also helped the two develop their crafts. As mentioned before, Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in 1905, but she also influenced his Cubist style (in contrast to Leo Stein who thought it was a passing fad.) She thought it was fascinating and drew in the viewers’ attention.

Stein returned the favor of Picasso painting her by writing a “Literature Portrait” called “Pablo Picasso” in which she described his appearance, temperament, and passion for art. Picasso was flattered by the tribute. He also read many of her works, though required a translator since he couldn’t read English that well. When the two wrote about their works, it is clear that they enjoyed having someone who understood their thoughts and styles.

However, Stein believed that they should stick to their respective hemispheres in the arts and was offended when Picasso published a few poems. Her letters suggested someone who is furious that someone would dare step into her territory, especially one of her best friends. This became one of the issues that led to their breakup in 1944.

The two were very active in politics but in different ways. This was particularly prominent during wartime. During WWI, Picasso remained in Paris while Stein and Toklas lived in Majorca. Picasso was an eyewitness to the violence, bloodshed, and wounded soldiers around him. He also felt isolated and cut off from friends. Finally, he left to devote himself to his art and chose not to actively become involved in the war effort.

Stein and Toklas, on the other hand, volunteered for the American Red Cross and assisted in aid and relief efforts. Their letters during this time seem to be more passive aggressive asking why they don’t write often but Stein subtly accused Picasso of not doing his part to help out and Picasso reminded Stein that he had seen enough of the war.

By the 1930s, their correspondence was less frequent. One reason was that they physically moved closer to each other so they didn’t have to write. Also, Picasso had other friends and not as much time for Stein.

Stein spent more time on her writing as well after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a success. The few letters collected during this time have an obvious coolness as though the two were back to vague acquaintances instead of best friends.

The most significant reason for their break up, however, was their divergent views during the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Stein spoke in general about the destruction in Spain but remained tight-lipped about how she felt about General Franco’s uprising or the bombing of Guernica.

Picasso, a native Spaniard, was a fervent Loyalist and was definitely anti-Franco. During this time, he painted one of his most famous paintings, “Guernica,” reflecting his feelings about the bombing.

Stein was also slow to speak out against the Vichy French government and openly praised General Petain. Picasso became more liberal as he aged and criticized his old friend’s inactions calling her “a real Fascist.” Stein died in 1946 and even though the two never reconciled in life, Picasso later spoke warmly of their friendship calling Stein “an extraordinary human being.”

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein  were two tremendously creative people sharing a friendship that was loving, argumentative, close, passionate, and always inspirational.

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