Location | New York: The Steins Collect at the Met

Entrance to "Steins Collect" Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC
(author's photograph)
screen capture of Kathy Bates playing Gertrude Stein
(debating Picasso) in Woody Allen's
Midnight in Paris (2011)
For those of you who had a chance to see Woody Allen’s most recent film Midnight in Paris, there is a remarkable set of scenes that feature Kathy Bates playing a charismatic and energetic Gertrude Stein at the peak of her powers in 1920’s Paris. Stein, who acted as patron for artists who today read as a who’s who of the early twentieth century modern art and literary movement (think Hemmingway, Picasso, Dali, Matisse etc...) is introduced to the audience through Bates’ captivating performance. More than just an astute collector, we see Stein in her element --in her salon-- as mentor and friend, critic and passionate advocate, acting as catalyst for modern art’s ascendancy into the mainstream, a woman who helped unite and provide emotional and professional support to artists who may never have had the chance to gain wider recognition. Getrude Stein was of course not alone, but part of a larger American family (including brothers Leo and Michael, sister-in-law Sarah, and her life partner Alice Toklas) who formed a nucleus of support for artists experimenting on the margins of a new modern art.

A Man Ray photograph of Gertrude Stein sitting in front
of the famous painted portrait done of her by Picasso in the 1920's
It was with these thoughts in mind that I walked into the Metropolitan Museum’s much anticipated exhibition "The Steins Collect: Matisse,Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” More than just an accumulation of the Steins’ art collection—some 200 on display—the exhibition successfully conveys the passion, risk, and commitment of a family supporting a form of art that pushed the envelope of what was deemed legitimate and worthy of serious cultural consideration in its time. Walking through room after room of priceless and now well-known pieces associated with the canon of art history (including the famous cubist portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso reprinted in every survey modern art history text on the planet-- see image above), it could have been hard to remember this. The visitor, however, is reminded in well placed wall panels and items of personal correspondence concerning how this particular form of visual production, in its historical moment, incited radical political and social positions both in defense and condemnation of its continued existence.  At the same time, the exhibition managed to balance such gravitas with the sense of intimacy and "insider" view one would expect of a personal family art collection.  

No doubt, the Stein family is part of a larger chapter in the history of art collecting that is often obscured by the huge personalities and narratives of artistic and avant-garde genius that are associated with the very men the Steins helped make famous through their patronage. Not surprisingly, discussions surrounding the financial side of art often remain taboo in discourses concerning the avant-garde—it complicates the notion of rejecting institutional supports, an idea at the core of the movement-- but it is an aspect of modern art history that bears closer scrutiny and conversation if we are to understand the dynamics, mechanisms, and strange paradoxes that have evolved into what we see today in the strange workings of the contemporary art market.

The Metropolitan Museum has collected a series of scholary talks devoted to the exhibition in one rich YouTube video that can be viewed below. The talks featured here include:

"I am having the time of my life": Leo Stein in Paris, 1903--6
Rebecca Rabinow, curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, MMA

The Stein Salons in Context
Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Portraiture and the Making of Gertrude Stein
Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University

"So I went on looking at pictures all the time": Gertrude Stein's Last Decade
Edward M. Burns, professor of English, William Paterson University

Gertrude Stein: The Inheritance
Richard L. Feigen, Richard L. Feigen & Co

Further Reading:

Duncan, Michael. "Stein's Way." Art In America 100.2 (2012): 87-91. 

Haselstein, Ulla. “Gertrude Stein's Portraits of Matisse andPicasso.” New Literary History , 34. 4 (2003): 723-743.