Among the treasures was Picasso’s 1905-06 portrait of Gertrude, looking like a cross between Madame Defarge and a statue from Easter Island. Stein loved the heavy, peasant-like intellectual ferocity of the image, and frequently appeared in photographs under or near the famous painting. (The Picasso is not in the Portrait Gallery show but is in the traveling “Steins Collect” show that will go to New York.) She also claimed (preposterously) that it took more than 80 sittings for the great artist to get her just right. The painting became her brand, or logo, and associated her name forever and always with that of Picasso, whose accomplishment and fame soon eclipsed her own. In the tedious little book Stein wrote about Picasso, filled with absurd generalizations and essentializing claims that explained Picasso by virtue of his Spanish heritage, she put her finger on one of the great delusions of the art world, a sin she furthered with all her prodigious energies: “A picture lives by its legend, not by anything else.”
The dark side
Stein certainly lived by her own legend, and you can see her buffing it to a shine in almost every photograph in the National Portrait Gallery show. In domestic scenes with her lover Toklas, Stein gravitates to the center of attention. A 1922 photograph by Man Ray, who was her unofficial house photographer until he asked for payment and was given the boot, shows Gertrude large and impressive at her desk, with poor Alice framed by the doorway like a servant, seemingly mousy in her dreary weeds (she was, in fact, every bit as monstrous as Stein). Readers of Stein’s 1933 “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” receive a quick surfeit of Gertrude’s imperious egotism. The seemingly clever ruse of writing her own story as if told through the voice of her lover is transparently an excuse to amp up a narcissism and self-congratulation that would be utterly insufferable parsed if in the first person.
The National Portrait Gallery show, first seen in a larger version at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum last summer, doesn’t flinch from examining Stein’s ugly side. It gets a lot of it just right: “Stein was an arts networker,” one panel says, which is the best way to describe her. But it gives too scant attention to her association with Bernard Fay, a French bigot whose star rose under the Vichy regime, and it takes too much for granted Stein’s self-assessment as a great writer.
The Fay controversy is increasingly dogging the Stein legacy. Fay was among the young homosexual artists and aesthetes who gravitated to the Stein-Toklas household. His specialty was a perfervid anti-Masonic loathing, which he was able to practice with deadly results after Hitler blew into France and the Vichy regime was set up to do his bidding in the unoccupied territories. After World War II, when Stein and Toklas were discovered perfectly safe despite being Jewish, lesbian and avatars of the avant-garde in territory controlled by Hitler, who had no love of any of these things, there was a mystery: How did these remarkable ladies ride out the tempest?