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San Francisco Exhibit Reunites Gertrude Stein’s Remarkable Art Collection

May 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
During her time in Paris, American writer Gertrude Stein and her family amassed an amazing assemblage of groundbreaking art, including works from Picasso, Matisse and other notable artists. Spencer Michels reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, San Francisco recreates a world-class art collection.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: In turn-of-the-century Paris, the American writer Gertrude Stein held court for avant-garde painters and writers at the homes she shared with her brothers and sister-in-law.

She had been raised in Oakland, then went to Baltimore, but Paris was where the art scene was. Century-old photographs of their apartments show the walls nearly hidden by paintings of Picasso and Matisse and others the family had bought cheaply, a collection that was dispersed over the years.

Today, that amazing assemblage of groundbreaking art has been reassembled at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

JANET BISHOP, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: The exhibition brings together over 150 pieces that were once owned by the Steins from five different continents, from public collections, from private collections really, from all over the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Janet Bishop, one of the show’s curators, said this wasn’t just any art collection. Stein scoured art galleries and shows, buying paintings by unheralded artists like Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne, Juan Gris, as well as Picasso and Matisse, the cutting-edge artists of the day whose work, not yet famous nor expensive, gave rise to fauvism, cubism, and surrealism.

JANET BISHOP: The Steins were really essential to the development of modern art in the early 20th century. Their homes became the crossroads for dialogue and anyone who was interested in seeing the most interesting new art being made in Paris at the time really had to go to the Stein residences.

SPENCER MICHELS: For years, Bishop and others tracked down the collection and convinced current owners to part with their treasures for exhibition here, then in Paris, and finally next February in New York, a very expensive journey.

In San Francisco, the paintings were examined minutely on arrival for preexisting faults or flaws. In the museum’s conservation room, some of the work received a little touching up, a little cleaning, the removal of old varnish, perhaps some reframing, everybody being very careful.

The Steins were not wealthy art patrons. They had a modest inheritance from a father who had operated cable cars in San Francisco. And they spent most of it on paintings and sculpture destined to become extremely valuable.

JANET BISHOP: Gertrude Stein famously said you can buy art or you can buy clothes, but you couldn’t do both. So, the Steins decided to focus on artists who were their peers, artists who had not yet made their reputations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Henri Matisse was a family favorite. In 1906, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo saw this Matisse at a Paris salon, unsold.

JANET BISHOP: Leo and Gertrude Stein stepped forward at the very end of the exhibition and offered Matisse a discounted price and he accepted it.

And as soon as that painting got to their home on the Rue de Fleurus, people needed to go see it. It had been the most notorious submission to that year’s salon.

SPENCER MICHELS: Notorious because even Matisse’s wife, who was the model, was embarrassed by the colors that didn’t correspond to nature.

JANET BISHOP: It was one thing to do that with landscape, but then to take that palette and apply it to a portrait of a woman, to a woman’s face, to paint a woman’s face green, was utterly shocking and unprecedented.

SPENCER MICHELS: The painting, “Woman With a Hat,” is today regarded as a masterpiece and graces the cover of the catalogue.

In 1907, the Steins bought a Matisse called “Blue Nude,” a painting, Bishop says, that had a profound influence on Picasso.

JANET BISHOP: It shows Matisse presenting a traditional subject of a bather in a very powerful, aggressive way. It was an immediate challenge to Picasso, and he launched into a series of drawings and paintings that respond directly to the “Blue Nude.”

SPENCER MICHELS: The Stein sculpture and pictures at San Francisco MOMA would be worthy of a show even if weren’t for the Steins. But the Steins of course give a lot of added interest.

Across the street, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, they have mounted a companion show on the life of Gertrude Stein.

WANDA CORN, San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum: These are two drawings by David Levine, Gertrude Stein here.

SPENCER MICHELS: As a character, Stein was a fascinating study. And Wanda Corn, art professor emeritus at Stanford and guest curator of this Stein show, has delved into her life and her friends.

WANDA CORN: Many of her friendships, it need be said, were rather short-lived, because she would quickly move on to another interest, another artist, another project that she was taking on.

SPENCER MICHELS: One friend she did keep was her companion, Alice B. Toklas, a major feature of this exhibit.

WANDA CORN: Gertrude and Alice fell in love, and eventually, Alice moved into the apartment of Leo and Gertrude. And it was Gertrude who continued to bring artists into the home.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Gertrude Stein wanted to be more than a collector.

WANDA CORN: She liked collecting, but after a while her public image as a patron and a collector bothered her. She wanted to be known the same way Picasso was known, for her creative work, not just for her collecting of others.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stein thought of herself primarily as a writer, whose work, Corn contends, has come back into fashion.

WANDA CORN: She was always just a little outside the mainstream until, really, feminism rediscovered her and began to look at her through a completely different lens.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition to writing several books, including the bestselling autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein composed the libretto for a cutting-edge opera composed by Virgil Thomson, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” with an all-black cast, produced in 1934. Both museums are showing excerpts.

As a writer and a collector, Gertrude was a very strong personality who encouraged her own celebrity, and loved being painted and sculpted.

Perhaps the most famous portrait is by Picasso, which both museums are featuring, in different forms.

JANET BISHOP: Gertrude tells this wonderful story of having sat in Picasso’s studio for some 80 or 90 sittings in a broken armchair. Then, at one point, he got completely fed up. He went off to the Pyrenees for the summer, and when he got back to his studio in Paris, he repainted the head completely and made her very mask-like, and that really is a — was a fundamental step toward cubism.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wanting to insure her own legacy, Stein left the Picasso portrait to New York’s Metropolitian Museum of Art, the only painting she willed to a museum.

Both San Francisco shows, anticipating summer crowds, remain up until Sept. 6.