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Delighted Obstinacy: Steve Evans on Gertrude Stein

By Harriet Staff

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Always grateful for a Steve Evans essay. In an extended post as part of The Steins Collect show at SFMOMA, the critic and professor writes today for Open Space about Gertrude Stein–expressing the poet’s feeling that the nature of existence is not repetition, but insistence; and deftly introducing the reader to her writing studio as salon in what he calls a “Collection Rotation.”

Firstly, Evans suggests that the lexical portraits Stein was writing after The Making of Americans but before Tender Buttons were the start of a break “with each and every article in the canon of literary mimesis, and it is what aligns her to the parallel developments in painting that she proved to be so prescient about. She endorses — and endeavors to put into practice — the perpetual renewal of our attention through the redistribution of emphasis and arrangement, and she comes to see rhythms — sonic, graphic, plastic, yes; but also erotic, existential, social — as the very essence of all existing.”

He goes on to illuminate the connections between the linguistic shaping of Stein’s attention and the art then-present as well as more current. A look at Cézanne’s Five Apples leads him to share a video clip feat. Elizabeth Murray; a consideration of indexicality links to Cy Twombly; Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (‘A la recherche de Gertrude Stein’)” shares space with Marie Laurencin and Apollinaire (Evans even includes a sound file of Apollinaire reading “Marie”), and so on and on. As for the latter, en fait:

It is pleasant and instructive — from the standpoint of experiencing the pure rhythms of language—to immerse oneself in listening to this sound file, no matter the state of one’s French. But it helps also to be able to read along, in French or in Anne Hyde Greet’s translation. One message communicated by the timbre and tone of the poet’s voice (themselves indexical signs in the sense discussed above) even before we comprehend the text’s meaning: Not all the rhythms one bathes in are joyous. Even Stein, by one account, “had hundreds of black-bordered calling cards embossed with the single word ‘Woe,’ which she handed out gaily declaring, ‘Woe is me’” (Ross Wetzsteon, Republic of Dreams).

One problem that arises when rhythmical singularity is installed at the core of human subjectivity is this: by what principle might such singularities ever be, without violence, “synchronized”? How can any two, any number, of such singularities be expected to make a life together? Comment vivre ensemble? as Roland Barthes put it in a yearlong exploration of the concept of “idiorrhythmy” — the idea, borrowed from early forms of Christian monasticism still practiced in places like Mount Athos, that each subject has its own rhythm — at the Collège de France in 1976–77.

The erotic union of Apollinaire and Laurencin was, in the version narrated in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, destined to its melancholy dissolution by the painter’s filial affection for a mother in whose household things were arranged just as if the two were living in a convent. . . . Marie and her mother acted toward each other exactly as a young nun with an older one. It was all very strange. Later, just before the war the mother fell ill and died. . . . After her mother’s death Marie Laurencin lost all sense of stability. She and Guillaume no longer saw each other. A relation that had existed as long as the mother lived without the mother’s knowledge now that the mother was dead and had seen and liked Guillaume could no longer endure. Marie against the advice of all her friends married a german. When her friends remonstrated with her she said, but he is the only one who can give me a feeling for my mother.

How true the account is I cannot say, but the triumph of the familial over the erotic bond in a way reverses the path Gertrude took from brother Leo to lover Alice. The dissolution of the prolonged and intense sibling bond — necessitating a division of the art collection, along with everything else — opened the space of another kind of connection. Phatic contact is of necessity finite, a fact that Gertrude’s numerous “breaks” and “cuts” — Leo, George Hugnet, Virgil Thompson — remind us. “We always had been together,” Stein says of Leo, “and now we were never at all together. Little by little we never met again” (Everybody’s Autobiography).

Evans also takes up Matisse sketches, Toulouse-Lautrec’s “In the Salon: The Divan,” Picasso’s “Head in Three-Quarter View, 1907″ (one year after his famously representative portrait of Stein herself–it’s fictionalized in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that “she posed to him for this portrait ninety times”); and circling back to Matisse–his “Woman with a Hat” (above) gave push to the coining of fauvism at the time but is contexualized here as Evans considers its various arrangements in the salon’s shifting installations.

The entire essay, better with images and sound files, can be read here.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, June 13th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.