It’s a rainy Saturday evening on the left bank of Paris. 27 rue de Fleurus is filled with the chatter of avant-garde artists and writers anticipating the scandals that would or would not occur at the Salon d’Automne, an annual art exhibition held in Paris. The host was Gertrude Stein, the guests, her coterie of friends and acquaintances who would came to be known as “the lost generation”. This is the scene depicted in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), in which Stein assumes the persona of her partner Alice, in order to document her time in Paris. A time which saw 27 rue de Fleurus develop into a crucial space for the production, development and display of Modern Art.

Despite the abundant artistic portrayals of Stein, she was certainly no passive muse. Sitting for her portrait became a form of self-fashioning, of establishing her identity during a period when it was a precarious time to be a Jewish, homosexual, expatriate and a woman. Stein’s political views have come under fire from mainstream press, however her survival during World War II had much to do with the loyalty and respect her French community held for her. Despite the very real dangers of two world wars, Stein continued her literary work, deliberately undermining conventional, hierarchical and patriarchal modes of representation.

Stein was a champion of the avant-garde, a generous patron of the arts, and an innovator and originator across all genres she chose to write in. Poetry, plays, novels, reviews and portraits are all reinvigorated by her revolutionary aesthetics, which culminated in the production of her last major work, the feminist opera entitled The Mother of us All (1947). It was a celebration of American democracy, which charted the life of American suffragette Susan B Anthony. In A Transatlantic Interview in 1946, Stein talks of her disinterest in “the little or big men” but instead to “realise absolutely every variety of human experience”. At the heart of Stein’s writing is “a need of evenness”, and this desire for equality in the political and social spheres is reflected in her one thousand page novel The Making of Americans (1925).

Her aspiration to abolish hierarchical structures was heavily influenced by Paul Cézanne. Stein writes of Cézanne that he “conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing”, thus, in Cézanne, each small patch of paint is as important as the whole. Words were Stein’s artistic materials, and her experiments with Cubism culminated in the pioneering poetry collection Tender Buttons (1914),  in which Stein abandons the first person pronoun “I” and its associations with the male literary tradition of lyrical poetry. Instead, these abstract word-portraits explode our conceptions of everyday objects, similarly to the way Picasso visually unfolds a still life depicting manifold perspectives all at once.

Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.

Stein revolutionises the noun, here the one dimensional title of the work “A Box” is enhanced by the description which functions like a Russian doll, revealing layers of interpretation. The use of “cattle” playfully alludes to Stein’s text “As a Wife has a Cow: A Love Story” (1926), where having “a cow” becomes code for the female orgasm. Female sexual pleasure comprises the subject, plot, and climax of this story in which the form echoes the content.

Happening and have it as happening and having it happen as happening and having to have it happen as happening, and my wife has a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now. My wife has a cow.

Feminists and Queer theorists have often positioned Stein as a literary foremother, an artistic radical who stood by her same-sex partner during an era when social conservatism prevailed. Contemporary, experimental American writers Lyn Hejinian and Joan Retallack offer us methods of reading their own writing through Stein’s influence. The centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons in October last year offered engaging perspectives on her poetry, and discussed her continued relevance to writers today. American Language poet Ron Siliman said of Stein “it is that writing that brings its own definition of reading with it”. Thus, Stein forces us to reject patriarchal systems of thinking through undoing our habitual ways of reading.

Stein’s writing was linguistically, politically and socially revolutionary. She developed a whole new grammar, eschewed the deadening closure of nouns and invented a sense of time she called the “continuous present”, wherein she strove to represent the immediacy of daily life lived in the present. She teaches us that just as we use language to construct the environment around us and make sense of the world, language can also be used to perpetuate systems which denigrate and silence women from the literary sphere.

Ultimately, it is Stein’s fearlessness in her reinvention of literary language, her playful eroticism and linguistic experimentation that make her truly “the mother of modernism.”

References include Bernstein, C. (2012). Gertrude Stein in Pictures / Bernstein, C. (2012). Gertrude Stein’s war years: Setting the record straight / Scott, B (1990). The Gender of Modernism / Vechten, Van, C (1990). Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein.

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Kyra Hanson

Written by Kyra Hanson

Kyra studied English Literature at Surrey University. She has worked for Influx Press,Veer publishers and as IdeasTap's resident Arts Critic. Through her writing she gives voice to women’s issues and celebrates women’s often neglected contributions to culture, history and politics. She also has an interest in contemporary and Avant-garde poetry. She currently writes for Londonist and is about to begin an MA in Journalism at Goldsmiths University in London.
By George Eastman House

Image by By George Eastman House

(originally posted to Flickr as Gertrude Stein) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons