Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein as painted by Pablo Picasso.
Text size

Gertrude Stein’s success as an expatriot America writer and patron of artists in Paris, she spent some of her childhood in California, where San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is now paying tribute to her. “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition of photographs, paintings and sculptures, focuses on Stein’s personal life — her friendships, her celebrity and legacy — more than on her poetry or novels.

Painters in Paris painted portraits of Stein. Picasso was the first artist to ask her to pose for him, and she prominently displayed the resulting portrait in her apartment. While not traditionally attractive, Stein’s rotund, mannish appearance became desirable in the art world; after Picasso portrayed her, others reverentially painted, photographed and sculpted his new friend.

Andy Warhol’s silkscreen is one of few on display that relate to her Jewishness. Stein was born to an American Jewish family, but art and literature, rather than traditional Judaism, became her religion. During World War II, Stein and Toklas stayed in German-occupied France and avoided persecution when other Jews and homosexuals were being arrested. A September 1944 wire service report on display reads: “Gertrude Stein Safe, Safe, Is Safe”; and indeed, she and Toklas remained surprisingly — and suspiciously — safe in Southern France throughout the war. The couple may have owed their wartime safety to Bernard Fay, an admirer and right-wing collaborator arrested after Germany’s defeat. Stein’s wartime association with Fay, her politics and her Judaism all remain disappointingly under-explored.

Read more on The Forward