Imperturbable Buddha?

Not likely. Why Gertrude Stein didn’t like this likeness, or likenesses, for that matter.

What constitutes a portrait? In the first of four essays based on a panel discussion about the Pulitzer Foundation's "Portrait/Homage/Embodiment" exhibition, Raphael Rubinstein looks at Jacques Lipchitz's portrait of Gertrude Stein and the portrait she penned of him in response.

“Imagine you’re locked inside a museum and the only way out is through the paintings.” Mary Jo Bang offered this metaphor at a panel discussion with two other poets, Peter Campion and Raphael Rubinstein, and writer Geoff Dyer, which took place this past April in the galleries of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. The panel, co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, explored the parallels between portraits in poetry and the visual art, especially those on display at the Pulitzer’s exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment.”

Over the next two months, we will publish articles by the four panelists inspired by their discussion and the exhibition. First up—Raphael Rubinstein writes about a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz of Gertrude Stein and the portrait she penned of him in response.

Was it to distinguish their fictions from the plot-driven novels of the high 19th century that both Henry James and James Joyce looked to a genre of painting to title a pair of great modern novels—Portrait of a Lady (1881) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)? The title of another of James’s novels, The Ambassadors (1903), also points toward portraiture by evoking Holbein’s eponymous 16th-century portrait of two French diplomats. Ezra Pound extended the fashion of textual “portraits” into poetry with his “Portrait d’une Femme” (1912)—the first line of which (“Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea”) Yeats, I think it was, fussily objected to because it had too many “r”s—and T.S. Eliot did the same with “Portrait of a Lady” (1917).

Although the term “portrait” in a literary title probably sounded somewhat modern to these writers, the connection was hardly a new one. As Eliot and Pound well knew, French romantic poet Théophile Gautier (who was also an art critic, like his friend Baudelaire) was writing verse portraits 60 years earlier. In fact, neither Pound’s nor Eliot’s “Portraits” are particularly innovative. “Portrait d’une femme” is a slice of Edwardian salon life, while “Portrait of a Lady”—despite containing one of Eliot’s great snapshots of vernacular life—“You will see me any morning in the park / Reading the comics and the sporting page”—shows the poet still deep in Laforgian atmospherics.

As it happens, there was a third expatriate American writer who was intrigued with the idea of written portraits, indeed so intrigued that they became the core of her work, and so innovative in her approach to the form that her literary portraits have still, a century later, not been assimilated into mainstream literature. I’m referring, of course, to Gertrude Stein.

Jacques Lipchitz, Gertrude Stein (1920). Private
Collection. Estate of Jacques Lipchitz, courtesy
Marlborough Gallery, New York.

One work in the Pulitzer’s “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment” exhibition offers a fascinating point of entry to the world of Stein’s portraits. Displayed on a shelf along with three other bronze busts (by Alberto Giacometti, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, and Aimé Jules Dalou) is Jacques Lipchitz’s Gertrude Stein (1920), a 14-inch-high bronze portrait of the famed writer and art collector. Sculpted in a smooth-featured representational style that is miles away from the Cubist abstraction Lipchitz generally favored in this period, the bust has striking affinities with the faces of Chinese Ming-era statues. The resemblance isn’t accidental: Lipchitz thought that Stein looked like an “imperturbable Buddha” and wanted to capture this quality in his portrait. He also hoped, in vain, it turned out, that Stein might add the bust to her collection. Her decision doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the quality of the portrait; a lover of painting, Stein was never much interested in sculpture as a medium.

It wasn’t only for Stein that Lipchitz turned off his Cubist style: writers Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet and designer Coco Chanel were also the subjects of lifelike busts. Lipchitz firmly believed that portraiture compelled the artist to attempt an accurate representation of the sitter. As he later explained: “My cubist friends were all making cubist portraits. I was always against that. I had long discussions about it, especially with my good friend Gris. I felt, and still do, that it is not legitimate because a portrait is something absolutely different. It has to do with likeness, with psychology, and at the same time it must be a work of art.” Although Lipchitz doesn’t say it, conventional, non-Cubist portraits were also probably a much easier sell, Stein’s case notwithstanding.

Although Stein declined to buy her 3-D portrait, a few years later she penned a portrait of Lipchitz. Interestingly, Stein begins her portrait of the sculptor with a sentence that seems to hammer away at Lipchitz’s championing of “likeness” in portraiture. “Like and like likely and likely likely and likely like and like,” she writes, conflating, and derailing, the word’s various meanings. To an attentive reader, numerous questions are raised in this opening line: Is her portrait going to be “like” Lipchitz? Is it “likely” that something she writes would resemble a particular person? Is the person in question someone she “likes”? Is she thinking of her portrait, wondering if it looks “like” her? Encountering this sentence, one can’t help but recall the well-known anecdote in which Stein complained to Picasso that she didn’t look like the portrait he’d done of her, to which the artist famously responded, “You will.”

In her 1934 lecture “Portraits and Repetition,” which is an account of how she came to make so many written portraits and why she wrote them as she did, Stein offers her portrait of Lipchitz as an example of her exploration of “the relation of color to the words,” without the text including any “element in it of description.” Her portrait of Lipchitz, she thought, “did this color thing better than I had ever before been able to do it.”

As in Stein’s other portraits, including famous examples such as “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” (1923), the reader doesn’t learn anything about the subject’s physical appearance or life history. Instead, Stein combines observations—sometimes seemingly whimsical, other times suggesting some deep character trait—about her subject with phrases that play with the sounds and significations of words. Of Lipchitz she tells us, “He dreamed he heard a pheasant calling and very likely a pheasant was calling” and that “He never needs to know.” This last sentence then turns into “He never needs he never seeds but so so can they sink settle and rise and apprise and tries.” (Perhaps this is a description of Lipchitz’s creative process, which Stein would have witnessed when she sat for her portrait.) The short piece ends with a simple declarative sentence, “I like you very much,” but nowhere is the name of a color, or any visual effect, so much as mentioned.

Among the various mysteries of this portrait is the title, “Lipschitz.” For reasons unknown, Stein spelled Lipchitz’s name not the way it always appeared during the course of his career, but in its original form. Born Chaim Jacob Lipschitz, in Druskieniki, Lithuania, in 1891, the sculptor, who immigrated to France in 1909, had his last name inadvertently changed by an inattentive immigration official, who left the “s” out of Lipschitz. Was her title’s spelling a slip on Stein’s part, or an attempt to restore a name to its true version, or a sly allusion to the artist’s Eastern European origins, or some even more allusive linguistic maneuver? With an author who paid unusually close attention to minute differences among words, it’s hard to pass over that extra “s” as merely accidental.

Lipchitz subsequently made two more portraits of Stein, again bronze busts. By this time he had moved away, in his main work, from Cubism to a sinuous, roughly surfaced, quasi-baroque figurative manner. This means that there was less of a stylistic distinction between his portraits and other work, but what really marks his later depictions of Stein is his changed perception of her. As he recalled:

“A number of years later, in 1938, I met Gertrude after a long interval and found that she had lost a great deal of weight. She looked now like a shriveled old rabbi, with a little rabbi’s cap on her head. I was so struck by the contrast that I asked if I could make another portrait of her. I made two different sketches, one with the cap and one without. She preferred the one without the cap, perhaps because it looked more feminine, but I liked the other one better. I did not carry the second portrait beyond the sketch stage because of the interruption of the Second World War. . . . The massive, self-confident Buddha has become a tired and rather tragic old woman.”

As well as being nearly two decades older, Stein, that year, had lost the lease on her beloved home at 27 rue de Fleurus, precipitating her and Alice B. Toklas’s move to the countryside. She may have had other worries as well. Lipchitz’s remark about Stein looking like an “old rabbi” underlines the fact that both Lipchitz and Stein were residing in France as foreign-born Jews, a situation that became increasingly precarious as war approached. Lipchitz fled Paris following the German invasion of 1940, eventually making his way to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life (he died in 1973). Stein remained in France throughout the war (she died there in 1946), rather surprisingly escaping arrest by either the Vichy government or the Nazis. (Some have attributed her good fortune to collaborationist sympathies and a well-placed friend in the Vichy government.)

Artist and writer approached their mutual portraits from very different places, both emotionally and artistically. Although they seem to have enjoyed a real friendship, Lipchitz appears to betray a touch of resentment when he says, “I made her portrait, hoping she would buy it, but she never did,” and seems to express something that could be read as either artistic objectivity or pity crossed with contempt when he pronounces her a “tired and rather tragic old woman” in 1938.

If Lipchitz felt compelled to stay true to resemblance in his portraits, Stein was not interested in describing her subjects, or at least not in any conventional way. Ironically, it is Stein’s literary portraits, and not Lipchitz’s sculptures, that are closer to many contemporary visual-art portrayals. When Robert Rauschenberg sends a telegram declaring, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” or Joseph Kosuth creates a portrait of Holly Solomon by clipping an etymology of the word “holly” from a dictionary, or Felix Gonzalez Torres designates a pile of wrapped candies as a portrait of his deceased lover, they share Stein’s disavowal of equating appearance and essence, her rejection of description. Artists such as these operate in the same realm as did Stein when she portrayed Picasso with lines such as “If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon” or Georges Hugnet with “George is in our ring. Grammar is not is disappointed. In are ring” or Lipchitz with “When I knew him then he was for then by then as then so then to then in then and so.”

Stein’s rejection of easy equivalency wasn’t simply a response to the realities of writing versus those of painting and sculpture. After all, not every literary “portrait” rejects exact resemblance. Pound’s and Eliot’s portraits certainly sought to describe their subjects with some kind of objective accuracy, as do, to pick two somewhat more recent examples, the vignettes in Robert Lowell’s Notebooks and Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother, “Kaddish.” But a countertradition of written portraits, largely founded by Stein, assumes and accepts an unbridgeable gap between the poetic text and the observation-based image. Perhaps no poet has better articulated this opposition than Stein’s sometime friend Laura Riding in her poem “As to a Frontispiece” (included in Riding’s 1938 Collected Poems).

In this poem, Riding invites the reader to select an image of a writer to accompany an imagined volume of poetry. “If you will choose the portrait / I will write the work accordingly,” she promises, sounding uncharacteristically accommodating. Riding proposes two alternatives: a “German countenance” that she could “dilate on lengthily” or a “tidy creature, perhaps American,” for which she would be willing to “provide a facile text.” But, she continues, if you, the reader, are dissatisfied with this kind of text-and-illustration format, if “you can’t make up your mind / What poetry should look like,” there is a third and, to Riding, much more fruitful alternative. For readers prepared to forgo any preconception about poet and poem, the collaborating poet and reader “may between us illustrate / This subsequent identity.”

Initially poking fun at the quaint tradition of placing engraved portraits at the beginning of books of poetry, “As to a Frontispiece” quickly becomes a compact literary manifesto. In its 24 lines of terse commentary, Riding advocates nothing less than a shift of focus in poetry from the relationship between subject and work to the intercourse between a work and its reader. Like Stein, Riding doesn’t want to get bogged down in the quest for likeness or to make writing subservient to any preexisting model. The task of the poet (and, by extension, any forward-looking writer or artist), rather, is to engage with the possibly difficult, relentlessly experimental, and eternally provisional search for meaning. Anyone can make a likeness, her poem reminds us, but how many can like a making?

Originally Published: July 25th, 2007

Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based poet and art critic whose numerous books include Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Criticism 1990-2002 (Hard Press Editions) and The Afterglow of Minor Pop Masterpieces (Make Now). He edited the anthologyCritical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice (Hard Press Editions). His book of micro-narratives In Search of the...

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