Creative Global Network for the Visual Arts

No. 4 Gertrude Stein on artworld pseudery

Issue 50, May 2011

Interview by Matthew Collings

The novelist, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania in 1874, spent most of her life in France and died from stomach cancer in 1946. Her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an account (written as if through the eyes of her lover, Alice) of Stein’s interaction with the modern art milieu in Paris. It has remained a cult hit among art lovers ever since it was first published, in 1933.

What was it like writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?


AR You practically invented artworld pseudery with it.

STEIN Yes. The point is never to say anything that has useful meaning. Instead you invent slight variations on a theme of mere greatness. The approach I employ the most is elevation by association: ‘Gertrude Stein’ plus an established great historical figure. So I never write anything about Picasso, for example, that doesn’t in some way insinuate that he and I are of one mind on every subject, while everybody else in the world is way out of both our leagues and baffled by the same things that Picasso and I find as natural as eating and drinking.

AR Which things in particular?

STEIN Well that’s part of the art, to glide sublimely above specifics. The great explanations on the wall labels at Tate Modern in their Orozco show are deeply influenced by the approach. And in general all guidance to the public that Tate Modern and indeed most public art institutions offer. I mean about how art actually functions, what it involves, how it is made, the issues artists are concerned with, the mechanics of the visual content of art, and the concepts that drive the mechanics, are all derived from my method in that book.

AR Do you think artists themselves can benefit from it?

STEIN Yes. The video accompanying the Orozco show, in which the whimsical, ageing boy-man says how intensely he thinks about laying out some burst tyres every time he does it in a different art gallery space, without saying what exactly – or even vaguely – he’s thinking about when he does it, so that the listener could relate a sublime experience to anything material, objective or realistic, attests to it.

AR To your triumph in that area, the explanation about art that is not an explanation but a self-regarding, self-aggrandising transparent insult to anyone deranged enough to be wasting their time taking anything about that explanation seriously?

STEIN Indeed. The requirements are garrulity and laziness, nothing more. And yet not anyone can do it. They want to make the occasional point, they get snagged on historical facts, relationships between one set of ideas and another, and the curious way in which one’s own Napoleonic tendencies can sometimes appear unrelated to the internal content of art. Of course this is rare in your time, and on the whole my legacy has triumphed and the entire mindset of contemporary art promotion is based on my discoveries. Critical thought in this context is possible, as are judgement, logic and a quick wit. But they are certainly not desired. As a rule they are usually stamped out. They go instead into critical art journals where the genuinely critical mind leads a stunted, poisoned, corrupted and decadent half-life. In the meantime magnificent press releases are issued by the Wallace Collection, in London, telling the reader that Watteau and Watteau’s dealer, in the eighteenth century, are the same as Damien Hirst and the billionaire collectors of Hirst, in the twenty-first. Or by the Dulwich Picture Gallery, also in London, asserting, for similarly vacuous reasons, that Cy Twombly and Poussin have the same artistic impact.

AR I agree, that stuff is mind-boggling.

STEIN Yes. To take only Twombly, who plays a cultural game involving buzzwords from classicism: this simply isn’t the same as being ‘influenced’ by Homer in the sense that, say, Picasso is influenced by Cézanne. Of course I never analyse the operations of culture in this helpful way in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which the most typical sentence is ‘As I say Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso immediately understood one another’.

AR I definitely recognise the precedent in your book for press-release hyperbole and of course Picasso is your main model for establishing it. For example, you tell us his famous portrait of you was done over many sessions, which obviously gets across the notion of Picasso–Stein proximity. But you don’t do anything culturally useful like giving the reader the benefit of any insights as to how Picasso’s thought processes as an artist might be reflected in the changes the picture went through. It’s as if such observations are irrelevant, while name-dropping and social climbing are the real burning issues.

STEIN Absolutely. ‘Robert Delaunay was a big, blond Frenchman. He had a lively little mother.’ This is the heart of the matter. Random impressions, placing the writer at the heart of a scene, without taxing the reader’s ability to absorb thought of any kind.

AR About the painter André Derain, who was initially a Fauvist, influenced by Matisse’s teaching, you say, ‘He had a sense of space that was quite his own’. But there’s no elaboration of what ‘space’ means in a painting context, or why a painter having his own sense of it might be different to other painters apparently just sharing the same sense, if that’s what they do, which seems unlikely, since, presumably, everyone has their own sense of everything. Presumably you’re saying Derain’s sense of space was different to Matisse’s, but we never hear what this was supposed to be either.

STEIN Ha, ha – yes. Instead I just chuck in mystical drivel, written for hicks. For example, in three consecutive sentences in which I describe audience reaction to a new painting by Derain in the Salon d’Automne, you read the words ‘strange’, ‘strangely’, ‘strangeness’ and ‘stranger’.

AR The effect is that readers remain ignorant about Derain
but awed at Gertrude Stein?

STEIN Exactly. The equivalent in your time is institutional art promo bullshit that never says anything penetrating. We live in a business world and every business has to maximise its selling power. Publicity is all. Content is nothing.

AR Ha, ha, marvellous, yes. Finally, about Derain you write, through the ‘Alice’ voice: ‘Gertrude Stein says she was never interested in Derain’s work. He had a sense of space but for her his pictures had neither life nor depth nor solidity.’ But you’ve never explained in the book how solidity or depth might be suggested in paintings, any more than you’ve explained what ‘space’ means. So when you put Derain down in this way, we’re none the wiser about why life is expressed in Matisse’s art but not in his, or, for that matter, Delaunay’s, which you also disparage later, on the grounds that Delaunay distorts Picasso’s cubist ideas to inappropriate ends.

STEIN Well observed, yes, you have certainly got the hang of it. The reader is not given an indication of what a cubist idea might be: ‘Gertrude Stein always says that cubism is a purely spanish conception and only Spaniards can be cubists and that the only real cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris’.

AR The funny use of lower case, and erratic punctuation, is fine, because it has a genuine sense of real speech. The pretence at intellectual meaning is the problem. Another good example of a double whammy of emptiness masquerading as substance is when ‘Alice’ describes Gertrude Stein’s response to a new picture by Matisse exhibited at the Salon. Here the salient points are 1) continuation of the campaign to identify the signifier ‘Gertrude Stein’ with overwhelming importance, and 2) reiteration of the rule that the highest artistic significance must be both natural and incomprehensible.

STEIN Ah, yes, I remember the passage by heart! ‘She then went back to look at it and it upset her to see them all mocking at it. It bothered her and angered her because she did not understand why because to her it was so alright, just as later she did not understand why since the writing was all so clear and natural they mocked at and were enraged by her work.’

AR Genius is always a life force, of course, in any dictionary of clichés. Instead of reinterpreting it you repeat it, again in connection with Matisse, and then add on, like incontinent afterthoughts, extra hokum about your own special sense of how the life force made itself apparent to Matisse’s intimates: ‘Matisse had an astonishing virility that always gave one an extraordinary pleasure when one had not seen him for some time.’

STEIN Ha ha, stop it you’re killing me! What was astonishing about it? Don’t fill anyone in, of course. Just steam on: ‘Less the first time of seeing him than later. And one did not lose the pleasure of this virility all the time he was with one. But there was not much feeling of life in this virility. Madame Matisse was very different, there was a very profound feeling of life in her for anyone who knew her.’ Uh? Even I have to laugh at the skill with which I tease the reader with the prospect of a psychological insight, from which I then simply veer blithely away.

AR But now that I think about it, it’s nice, actually. The reader does get a feeling of Matisse seeming to be all head, and Madame Matisse more emotionally spontaneous, and Matisse’s artistic sensuality coming out by tortuous routes. And that’s a useful thought about a certain stream of modern art. Perhaps one of the most difficult-to-understand streams, because it is the most misunderstood by art people of the present moment who wish to be thought of as clever, because it is preoccupied with sensuous pleasure, and seeks a continuity between pleasure in art in the times of, say, Watteau, or Poussin, and the difficult modern present. It relates to the anguish Matisse suffered about the art audience assuming that because his art expressed effortless beauty, it didn’t actually take any effort to make, or he didn’t often have to resolve contradictions that must have seemed impossible – so your pseudery in this case accidentally hits the spot.

STEIN Ha ha, well you can’t win them all!

AR You’re copying that joke from Duchamp, yes? He was on a televised discussion panel in the early 1960s, and he said he wanted to remove all operations of taste from his selection of ordinary objects to be dubbed readymades, and an art intellectual on the panel said how beautiful some of them are, and Duchamp laughed and replied: “No one’s perfect!”

STEIN Ah Marcel, his wife Teeny was actually not so small.

AR Oh God, here we go.

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