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Pittsburgh native Gertrude Stein celebrated in exhibits, film

| Sunday, July 17, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO - It's the summer of Gertrude Stein.

The expatriate art collector, poet and novelist (who would hate all these commas) died in 1946. But her image and influence are on display at two popular San Francisco exhibitions and in the hit Woody Allen film "Midnight in Paris."

The attention likely would have pleased Stein, always her own best publicist.

"She would have loved it," said Dara Solomon, assistant curator at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, which through Sept. 6 will present "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," an exhibition devoted to the visual presentation of Stein, who spent part of her childhood in Oakland, Calif.

The "Seeing Stein" curators drew from an extensive collection of papers and artifacts left by Stein to Yale University to help ensure her legacy.

Stein, who was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Vienna at age 3, trumpeted her contributions to modern art in the 1933 book "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," which celebrates her friendships with Picasso and other important artists through the voice of Toklas, her longtime partner. Stein also cast an eye toward enduring fame when she left Picasso's famous 1906 portrait of her to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art -- the only piece of art she left to the Met.

"There is no question it had as much to do with ensuring her place in history as it did anything," said Janet Bishop, curator for paintings and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

For now, that portrait hangs at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of "The Steins Collect," an extraordinary display of works by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and others collected by Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife, Sarah, during their many years in Paris.

Behind Stein's ego lay profound intellectual and artistic curiosity -- and great generosity.

"One of the things that is so unique about the Steins is the way they opened their homes to pretty much anybody," Bishop said of salons at the 27 rue de Fleurus apartment Gertrude shared with Leo, then Toklas, and at the home of Michael and Sarah Stein, San Franciscans who followed Leo and Gertrude to Paris. "It is one thing to be in the right place at the right time to pick extraordinary talents to collect, but, then, to share that was really extraordinary. It was such a generous way of fostering a visual culture."

Leo and Gertrude, who moved to Paris around the start of the 20th century, were early champions of Picasso, then in his early 20s and new to Paris. Leo did not follow Picasso into his challenging Cubist period, but Gertrude was steadfast.

"Their friends and acquaintances have written about the fact that their introduction to modern art came via the Steins," said Bishop, noting that among those friends were curators and fellow collectors. "I think that is one of those things that distinguished Gertrude Stein's contribution to modern art."

Photographs at the San Francisco exhibitions immortalize the rue de Fleurus apartment, where artwork once reached the ceiling, with Picasso's "Gertrude Stein" hanging above "Woman With a Flowered Hat." A replica of the Picasso portrait appears in "Midnight in Paris," in which Kathy Bates plays Stein.

"Midnight" stars Owen Wilson as a Hollywood screenwriter and fledgling novelist visiting France who gets misty for the Paris of Stein's salons and the drunken revelry of expat writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Through nostalgia and a bit of magic, Wilson's character comes in contact with a 1920s Hemingway and Stein.

"Midnight in Paris" and the SFMOMA show, both of which are breaking attendance records, along with the well-attended Jewish Museum show, have introduced a new generation to Stein.

Though celebrated as a feminist and lesbian pioneer, her primary community was composed of male artists and writers.

"What she was about is a friendship network," said Tirza True Latimer, co-curator of "Seeing Stein." "She did support her friends -- she tried to connect with publishers and galleries, and she contributed to their little magazines. The very fact they were friends with her was a credential."

The friendships she valued most publicly were those that credentialed her, Latimer said. She still is best known for her friendships with Picasso and Hemingway.

That's by design.

"She and Picasso were tight from 1906 to the beginning of the Great War, and she and Hemingway were tight for about five years right after the war," Latimer said. "She and this gang of gay guys were tight for about 30 years ... (but) she wanted to emphasize these relationships (to Picasso and Hemingway) because they already had paid off."

Friendships with women were few, Latimer said.

"Women didn't have the clout culturally that men had at the time, and weren't in the position to advance (her career or reputation). She didn't want to be marginalized, and she made that pretty clear."

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