Arts & Events

Art Review: "The Steins Collect"

By Dorothy Snodgrass
Monday June 20, 2011 - 11:19:00 AM

This past Tuesday afternoon I had enormous pleasure, and I might say, inspiration, when I attended the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's fabulous exhibit, "The Steins Collect." Having over the years visited magnificent art galleries in Europe -- the Louvre, National Gallery in London, and the Pitti Palace in Florence, I assumed this exhibit would be anticlimactic and rather ordinary. I was sadly mistaken! 

On entering the Museum, a beautiful building with its dramatic stair way, patrons were given a yellow ticket specifying the time they could join a tour of the Fourth Floor. I was scheduled for 10:45. Little did I dream that there I would see seventy-five works by such masters as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Renoir, and Toulouse Lautrec and other masterpieces of the Parisian Avant-garde. With such a wealth of glorious paintings it was a problem taking them all in (and murder on the feet). Matisee's "Woman with a Hat" was, without question, the most popular piece in the show, followed closely by Picasso's "Boy Leading a Horse", and, of course, his portrait of Gertrude Stein. 

I must confess that for me the highlight of this superb exhibit was the section devoted to the history and faded photos of the Stein family and their famous salon at 27 Rue De Fleurus in the early 1900's. The exhibition tells the story of the Steins (Gertrude and her brother Leo) and their lives as highly unusual but frequently brilliant collectors of art. They initially purchased Matisee's "Woman with a Hat" after its scandalous debut in the 1905 Salon d'Automne, where it inspired critics to classify Matisse and his peers as "those beasts". Though it's impossible to replicate the Stein's chaotic apartment walls, which were covered from floor to ceiling with the art they loved, the Museum has artfully displayed those walls in a blown-up image. 

Leo strongly objected to Gertrude's homosexuality and her affair with Alice Toklas, leading to irreconcilable differences. But they nonetheless continued to collect art and lived to see Picasso and Matisse become the most famous artists of the 20th Century. 

"Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories" can be seen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, through September 6th. This show offers five fascinating paths through Stein's life and legacy, with several photos -- one by Cecil Beaton, and another of Gertrude and Toklas. "The Art of Friendship" examines her relationship with artists and writers, especially her circle of younger, gay admirers. "Celebrity Stein" focuses on her triumphant lecture tour 

Not many people know that Stein and the young composer Virgil Thomson created an opera about Catholic saints in Spain, entitled "Four Saints in Three Acts", which will play at the Yerba Buena Center for the Art's Novellus Theatre, August 18-21. The opera premiered in Hartford, Connecticut and quickly moved to Broadway where it became a widespread sensation. 

So, given all the astounding and diversified accomplishments of Gertrude Stein, who lived in Oakland for a short time-- thus her misquoted statement, "There's no there" -- one can readily see why the Stein Collect is SFMOMA's most popular exhibit of the season. Art lovers remain fascinated with this admittedly plain, mannish-looking woman and her contributions to the Parisian Avant-garde.