“Nothing is really so very frightening when everything is so very dangerous.” (Gertrude Stein, American author and Ex-Patriot)
In 1905, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by Gertrude Stein to do a portrait of the avant-garde American author and Ex-Patriot. At that time, Picasso was struggling with trying to understand his inner self. The artist gratefully accepted the opportunity to “capture a resemblance” of Ms. Stein. Stein was a large figure who commanded space with her physical presence but also with her mind. Stein had an intimidating way of seeing the world around her and many of the avant-garde artists in the Montmartre district of Paris were uncomfortable around Stein. Not Picasso. The Catalan artist was moving away from representation—in a rather stealth fashion—and the Stein portrait helped this Spanish artist resolve the inner struggle he was facing as he approached the canvas. Picasso spent a number of drawing sessions in Stein’s apartment during the summer of 1905. Photographing the canvas decades after Picasso finished painting it, researchers have found that the artist successfully blocked in the powerful physical presence of Stein with relative ease. But the photographic x-rays indicated the artist seemed to vanquish over the face/head of Stein. Picasso left Paris toward the end of that summer for some reflection time in Barcelona. When the artist returned to Paris, he was able to “finish” the portrait. The issues with the head and face had been resolved.
Resolved for the artist! Resolved for Gertrude Stein as well! But visitors to the Stein apartment were questioning the face, the likeness, the essence of resemblance! Hearing the protestations to his “interpretation” of Stein, Picasso famously said, “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will,” which was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” The completion of the portrait marks the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and “resemblance,” concepts that would come to influence her writing nearly as much as Picasso’s Cubist philosophies.
This decision by Picasso to “fracture” Stein’s face into many planes of perception, was a monumental revelation! Picasso had found, this this portrait, an understanding of his inner struggle. The artist would not look back but continue to move forward. Within the year of completing his Portrait of Gertrude Stein, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 and Cubism was born!
What are your thoughts on those in Paris during the first decade of the 20th century, surrounded by an incredible creative energy for change and expressive freedom, being so resistant to the very early manifestation of a shift in the visual arts?