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How does Gertrude Stein take advantage of the techniques of other arts and artists in her two portraits of Pablo Picasso?

Essay 2019 6 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


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Two of the most prominent poems Gertrude Stein have ever written on the subject matter of the famous Spanish painter Pablo Picasso were her Picasso (1909), written three years after Picasso painted a portrait of her in 1906, when she admired Picasso of his art, and If I Told Him: a Completed Portrait of Picasso (1923), when she started to doubt the worth of her literary works (Mitrano, 2017). Despite the stark difference of the poem’s background, both poems use literary techniques that resembles different forms of arts, including that of painting, film, dance and music.


The fact that the two poems are portraits of Mr. Pablo Picasso resembles the poems as paintings per se. The first portrait of Picasso, is deemed as a response by Stein on Picasso’s portrait of her, which was drawn three years earlier than the writing of the portrait (Mitrano, 2017). Although when Picasso drew Stein’s portrait it was in Picasso’s Rose Period, in which Picasso’s paintings were primitivist but still somehow realistic, when the poem Picasso was written it was already in Picasso’s African period, in which Picasso started to mimic African art and use simple lines and shapes to depict objects and realism seemed to have lost its trace. Stein imitates Picasso’s becoming-abstract paintings by using the indefinite pronoun “one” in her 1909 portrait of Picasso, instead of using the pronoun “he” or the name Picasso, by making the protagonist of the poem more abstract (Mitrano, 2017). According to McCloud (1993), the more abstract a figure is, the more number of entities it may represent, and more people can substitute themselves into the art by resembling themselves, thus getting a much amplified meaning. By looking at Picasso’s paintings in his African period, and by reading Stein’s portrait of Picasso, one can substitute themselves as the protagonist easily in both situations. An abstractist would argue that, therefore, for a painting or a poem to contain a universally true meaning, the painting or the poem must be abstract enough for the meaning to be pinpointing at the universal public rather than a realistic individual. The poem Picasso praises Picasso of pursuing this kind of true meaning through abstractism: “This one was one having always something being coming out of him, something having completely a real meaning.” (Picasso, stanza 12).

The poems can be interpreted as the process of painting portraits, as Mitrano (2017, p.100) wrote: “Stein tropes Picasso's visual art as voice, that is to say, as writing coming out of her, having public meaning”, although readers would have painted two contrasting versions of Picasso by the time they have written both of the poems. In the process of painting, the painter paints bit by bit as he adds and erases and stands still looking at the painting not editing anything at all. For example, the sentence “This one was one who was working” in the poem Picasso repeated in its entirety across stanza 7 and 8, resembling the painter’s standing still as he finishes drawing a certain part and thinking what to draw next in the upcoming part. The first and second sentence of the poem Picasso is different in the way that the word “completely” is taken away before the word “charming”. The third sentence of the poem Picasso had the word “ completely” added again before the word “charming”, but the word “certainly” was taken away before the word “following”. Finally in the fourth sentence the word “certainly” is added again but this time to describe the adjective “charming” rather than the verb “following”. This first stanza of the poem expresses hesitance of the poet when writing the poem, on whether to add the adverb at all, and where to add it. The poet finally decides that the version of having both adverbs added before the word “charming” is the best as people do not easily follow someone unless the person is charming to an extreme. The choice also reflects that there is no such thing as “certainly following” as people fluctuates and changes very often their taste. By making someone “certainly following” is much harder than finding someone who is “certainly completely charming”, or maybe people would not “certainly follow” someone even if he is “certainly completely charming”. For whatever reasons the poet decides to use this final version of the sentence in the poem, usually we do not see the previous versions of the sentence, because writing a poem in itself is not a performing art. For paintings, however, we are able to look at a painter and see how he paints and edits and appreciates what he adds and erases in the process. By leaving traces of the previous versions of its sentences, Stein gives readers a more comprehensive understanding to how and why she writes so, as in the context of onlookers watching a painting being painted.

The second portrait of Picasso, written in 1923, was at Picasso’s neoclassist period. As many painters tried to get back to making sense by reviving the realist tradition, Stein hesitated and had a struggle on the meaning of abstractionism and questioned the value of having an audience (Mitrano, 2017). For the fact that Stein wrote her 1923 portrait of Picasso in the form of abstractionism signified that she would be adhering to abstractionism, and because of the fact that Picasso betrayed the abstractionism movement, now she is to paint the portrait of Picasso again since he is not the charming Picasso in the 1909 portrait anymore. In the 1923 portrait of Picasso the indefinite pronoun is not used but the personal pronoun “he”, and Picasso is portrayed as “Napoleon” or “as kings”. It seems that Picasso is portrayed as of higher class this time. Stein, however, also appears with a higher status in the 1923 poem by resembling herself as a judge, as she wrote: “I judge judge”. From this we know the status of Picasso is given by the public, as he is a good painter, probably he is an important judge in the realm of paintings. Stein, as a judge in the literary circle, judges the judge of the painting circle. A problem raises here: Stein without any practical painting skills, for what reason is she qualified as a judge to judge a judge in the other realm he rarely touches. When we look at the 1923 poem, we can see that Stein is in fact painting with the poem this time, physically in terms of the appearance of the words. By writing a few sentences long and a lot of short sentences in between the long sentences, the words of the poem resembles the distance markings of a ruler. The act that Stein measures or judges the neoclassicist paintings of Picasso using the poem can now be done in two ways: by reading the poem and judging Picasso philosophically, or by using the poem as a ruler and judging the paintings physically with it. By doing something creative out of and perfecting abstractionism, Stein shows that she is a loyal observant of the abstract art while Picasso is not since if he can be easily dulled by it and have to resort to neoclassicism for fun he does not know the true meaning of abstract art.


Despite the fact that the two poems are themselves portraits of Picasso, this does not mean that we cannot interpret the poem as resembling other art forms. Murphet (2015, p.168) once wrote: “Stein’s text itself is nothing other than a laboratory or test facility for the detection of the slightest variation amidst a monotonous pounding of repetition; or in other words, a cinema”. Repetition is one obvious similarity between films in the early 20th century and the two poems. Some art films at the time such as Ballet Mécanique embraced repetitions and tries to resemble the repetitive movements of the machine by making a collage of shots in which many are in fact the same shots, or are very similar shots. The cinema by using very similar yet different shots explores optical unconsciousness on whether such minor differences can be spotted after prolonged repetition of the very similar shots. Stein, by using very similar sentences, also tries to achieve grammatical unconsciousness by posting complex grammatical and ungrammatical sentences all into the same poem, and after repeating these sentences for a poem long time, one can hardly determine which is correct and which is not. While the cinema plays a joke on the good-sightedness of the audience, the poem Picasso plays a joke on the grammatical sense of the audience (Murphet, 2015).


The fact that dance is made of different kinds of repetitive movements renders Stein’s two portraits of Picasso’s very much like it. Some of Stein’s work is also turned into dances, such as They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife. A Play (1931), which was turned into a ballet set. A famous choreographer Yvonne Rainer (as cited in Daugaard, 2018) mentioned: “It does not breed in me contempt it just breeds familiarity. And the more familiar a thing is the more there is to be familiar with. And so my familiarity began and kept on being”. From this we can see the concept of a dancer is that what a dance is is to practice until one is familiarized with the dance steps. If the dance steps are very different, it does not take much effort to be able to dance them out in a distinguished way, but if the dance steps are very similar, it will take a lot of effort to get familiarized with the difference between each step in order to dance it right. For those expert dancers, similarities are what they embrace rather than differences. For the same reason, poetry reading is very difficult for the two Picasso portraits given the similarities of the sentences and the sometimes ungrammatical constructs, but this is what makes the poem interesting and what gives meanings to very good poem readers.


Although at the time of Stein there is not yet any minimalistic music that resembles the kind of repetitive style in Stein’s two portraits of Picasso. One of the first minimalist compositions in classical music is John Cage’s Three Songs for Voice and Piano, composed in 1932-33, which includes Gertrude Stein’s poems as lyrics. The repetition of a motif in minimalistic music, and the seldom alteration of one single note of the motif regarding pitch or rhythm, gradually changes the whole motif, but by that time the audience usually has already fallen asleep or has started meditation or has forgotten what the original motif is (e.g. Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach). The joke on the carelessness of the audience, due to the unavailability to retrieve what has been heard, however, does not work very well on poems, because one can always trace back to see what has been changing since the very beginning. In poetry reading, however, by reading Stein’s two portraits of Picasso out loud, the effect of the joke can still be achieved given that the audience do not know very well about the poem, and this may explain why poetry reading is so important, because it gives life to the poem a different kind of art and life that can never be experienced through mere reading.



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Education University of Hong Kong
gertrude pablo picasso stein



Titel: How does Gertrude Stein take advantage of the techniques of other arts and artists in her two portraits of Pablo Picasso?