Which, of course, includes thorns. But what good icon doesn’t have thorns?
The exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” is a stunning evocation of the lesbian writer, art collector (a companion exhibition of her family’s collection is at SFMOMA), and cultural visionary.
She’s one of the first literary lesbians I ever heard of…after Radclyffe Hall…and I was always fascinated with her ability to put words together just as she wanted them, rather than fit them into the box of easily interpreted sentences. I may not have understood what she was saying at the time but the rhythms were mesmerizing.
(And no she didn’t mean that Oakland had no there there! Just that her house was gone.)
The fun part of this exhibit is its complex view of Gertrude—we get to see her vision in championing Picasso before anyone and then her somewhat less distinctive taste with her ‘second family’ collecting of later (sometimes kitschy) artists. The dubious way she rode out the collaborative Vichy government’s rule in France is part of her legacy. But so is the brilliance of her use of language and her observations of culture which still shine 65 years after her death. Stein was doing experimental and avant garde before there was a name for them. She and Alice raised the idea of a salon to a university level. She wrote the libretto for the first Broadway show to have an all-Black cast (Four Saints in Three Acts, 1934…also getting a new production this year)! And, almost single-handedly, created the reputations of a number of modernist painters in addition to Picasso.
But what I love most is that the exhibit opens the door on her life long love affair with Alice B. Toklas. It’s so much fun to see how these two Oakland girls remade themselves as cultural doyennes in Paris. Their salons, their fashions, their friends all became subjects of discussion in the art world. It was an amazing time when two lesbians who made an art project of their lives (don’t get me started on the painted pigeon wallpaper in their boudoir) could live so boldly in the early part of the 20th century and fashion art as ‘necessary bread’ for the society around them. It made me really miss the 1970s and 80s when lesbian feminist publishing was flourishing and enlivened the idea of gay political community.
Gertrude was an ‘hommesse’ (which is kind of butch woman before butch was a term) who crafted her image carefully from hair to clothes…some of which Alice made. Alice was a quintessential high femme with a taste for experimentation and adventure. The photographs of them together show how much they relied on each other to complete their own images. Quite apart from the public nature of a photograph or their relationship it was important politically to see their personal bond especially given how difficult it was and still is for lesbians to feel supported by society—either straight or gay.
Most touching for me, though, was something completely unexpected. When I worked at an arts center for young people in the 1970s I crewed on a production of Stein’s 1938 play “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights” with a group of teens and it was startling how easily they took to her experimental language. Her repetition and supposed ‘non sequiters’ all felt natural to them. The rhythm of the work flowed from their mouths on stage like a familiar song. When I saw that the CJM exhibition had an installation which played Stein’s voice I knew immediately what I’d been missing. Her writing held the promise of imagining what her voice sounded like but it’s really impossible to conjure up something like that.
But there she was on tape (or some digital equivalent) and I pressed the ear phones to me as if they were Gertrude herself. I listened again and again realizing her voice reminded me of Audre Lorde! Not, of course, Audre’s mellifluous Caribbean/New York tones, but similar musicality in her voice I could have expected from reading the work—but didn’t. Stein always presented a stolid/solid image that brooked no opposition or contradiction. Perhaps that image was born of a necessity to demand her independence when that was not so common for women. But her voice was lighter, still firm but musical like her words. I wanted to cry I was so happy to have a new ‘view’ of the quirky lesbian genius who gets taken for granted by contemporary critics and artists. She’s a corner stone for every lesbian wordsmith working today although educational institutions, cultural critics and other purveyors of history seem to overlook that.
It’s amazing how lesbians can be diminished even when they’ve changed the world.
Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com