Some thoughts on Stein and Picasso

My apologies for waxing academic, but after all I am a student of modern poetry right now. One of the secondary reasons I decided to take the University of Pennsylvania’s class on modern and contemporary poetry (the primary reason was my respect for Al Filreis) was to learn more about Gertrude Stein, and I have. What I’m sharing here though pertains to an understanding of the visual arts that I happen to have, considering comparisons have been made in the class between poetry and painting.

Gertrude Stein’s poetry begs to be compared to Cubism, but the differences are at least as great as the similarities. A comparison of the art of poetry to that of painting can only be so rigorous, and the strengths of the cubist approach in painting are different than those in poetry.

A classic cubist portrait like Picasso’s Ambroise Vollard is said to depict its subject from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. If this were a superior means of doing a painted portrait we would undoubtedly see more of them. In fact it isn’t and therefore we don’t see them. One subject looks pretty much like the rest under this method. Indeed, the human subjects of analytic cubist paintings don’t convey an impression significantly different than the guitars and still lifes. It is well known, moreover, that so methodical was the analytic approach that a Picasso didn’t look significantly different than a Braque either.

But Picasso did not utilize the analytic method because it was a superior way of making a portrait. Instead he was exploring a new way of organizing the picture plane. In fact one of the reasons Cubism was a scandal was that the results, when applied to the human figure, appeared to be dehumanizing. A still life with guitar wasn’t such a stretch: the cubist method could be seen as a new way of arranging a picture. But does Picasso’s portrait of Ambroise Vollard really give us a fuller picture of the man than Renoir’s or Cézanne’s? Or does it instead fracture the man’s visage into a hundred slivers? Actually, what preserves Picasso’s painting as a good portrait is the segment in the center that can be identified, in its classical integrity, as the subject’s primary features. It is this portion of classical portraiture nestled in the painting’s center that allows it to be recognized as a portrait at all. It’s no surprise that Picasso moved on. Next he explored a new approach to classical figuration and a new Cubism.

The new Cubism, called Synthetic Cubism, reduced the number of fractures while bringing out the figures in bold patterns and colors. It became an excellent method of portraiture, this reduction in quantity of “views” or perspectives. So successful was it that Picasso stuck with it, or some variant of it, for the remainder of his life and it rendered the first version of Cubism, by comparison, a mere experiment.

Stein’s poetic Cubism, if it can be called that, in a poem like If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso, has been described very well by Al Filreis and the other instructors of ModPo. So successful is this type of Cubism that Filreis is justified in saying that here Stein “out-Picasso’d Picasso.” But then, if we are going to say that the point of Cubism is to present multiple views of a subject simultaneously then the poetic method is far superior to that of painting. In fact it was not the primary purpose of cubist painting. Cubist painting was primarily about a complete reorganization of the picture plane. The superior form, within the visual arts, of presenting multiple views at once is sculpture—you simply walk around the object in physical space. And the features that made the synthetic version of Cubism superior to the analytic one (the one with all the “views”) are all features that display the unique powers of painting: the graphic qualities of texture and contrast, the compositional treatment of forms within the cubist grid, and color, and color. Above all color is the element that poetry, as compared to painting, can’t even touch.

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14 Responses to Some thoughts on Stein and Picasso

  1. Something went wrong when I tried to post my first comment, but if you receive a duplicate, please just delete this. I, for one, enjoy it when you wax academic. There is always more to learn. Is this an online course, Mark? Here’s a short poem I wrote when Picasso’s guitar visited our museum:

    Poetic Plagiarism

    Verbal cubism:
    Deconstructing reality,
    Finding Picasso.

  2. Scott says:

    Mark- I was introduced to an amazing phrase here in a past post. “I like it all…all of it.”
    I actually was right along with you, I think. I mean the thoughts.
    Chance operations has kind of stuck with me..Ambroise Vollard could have been a collage, Cut up and reconstructed. I don’t really see it as just a portrait. There seems to be a lot more going on than just different perspectives.
    “If I told Him”, could very easily be rap. Thoughts broken down,copied and pasted. In a strange way, I almost identify with it. Short, choppy, thinking,re-thinking,hoping maybe.
    To understand Cubism, I came across the violin and the candle stick. A portrait of sorts.

    • Once one starts writing about visual art, it gets very complex. Yes, I definitely see the sense in which one can use the word “portrait” to describe (at least in part) a great variety of types of images. In fact, at one time I referred to all of my pictures as portraits. Did you listen to Stein’s reading of it? That’s what really won me over – incredible, just like music. I think the comparison of some of these Stein poems to music is more apt than comparing them to painting.

      • Scott says:

        Just listened to it, It took me by surprise at first. Rap and scat have that effect sometimes too. No mistaking a rhythm and musical quality. I feel an intensity too. A power to express. Almost a need to communicate, “ better lose yourself in the music,the moment,you own it….”

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Now, this exchange between you and Scott I particularly love: It was Stein’s reading of “Picasso” that won me over—the first time I heard it (back when I wrote Gertrude’s Gloire)—and every time thereafter. Malachite, the one poem out of which I could make no “language” sense, made perfect sense to me in sound. Here’s what I wrote on a discussion thread at the time (hmm, I knew saving a copy of this had to come in handy sometime!):

        Or could it be that the words were chosen on the basis of their sound alone? For example, in the first sentence, the driver seems to be the “s” sounds, while in the second, it seems to be the “en” and “on” sounds, and the two are twined together by the “z” (or near z) sound in the last word. Malachite is more of a conundrum, though listening to that word solely from the point of view of its “sound sense,” I might say it is a definitive word (that “chite” at the end), and the sound of the text is the “explanatory” sound material that accompanies it.

        I didn’t get much of a bite on that interpretation, but it is still so far the only one that really makes “sense” to me.

      • I thought this reading of ‘Malachite’ was pretty good:

        I really like that poem. “Sudden spoon” is an incredibly – I want to say protean poetic phrase. I agree, all those “S’s” must mean something. I’ve stayed pretty much out of the Stein forums; I still don’t know quite what to think of her.

  3. angela says:

    Your grasp on this far exceeds mine, so I hesitate to write anything….but will offer a question, is she not cubist in your mind then? Granted, as I write this I hear her saying ‘shutters shut and shutters shut… and the ‘he he and he’ which is akin to tonal music, or a avant – rap, but in my mind it had me circling as one would a sculpture in a room. Granted, if I’d read it blind- no knowledge of her intention – I wonder if I would have drawn the same ‘picture’. I’ve stated before (not sure if on my blog or in forum) as I read this, I cannot help but equate it to the brush slicing a different direction upon the canvas to change the variation.

    As a side-bar, something I stumbled upon tonight trying to answer the Stein quiz question..did you know that Stein had a horrible grasp on the English language? Supposedly, (would need to research source again) she entered USA at age 5 from Europe and her formative English skills were quite stilted. Even in college, her sentences were said to be quite simplistic. I’ve read in “Two Lives” that she claimed to be without imagination, could only write of what she knew of the ‘now’. Perhaps her unusual approach was more to make a niche without having to declare a defect…(meh, just a thought) As always, enjoy your posts. ~ a

    • I didn’t know that about Stein – certainly worth a look.

      On your question: ‘is she cubist in my mind?’ I think the whole question is rather academic. I’ve written this post in direct response to the ModPo teachers who made the cubist connection, which I think is an academic one, and I believe I answered it in that context. Personally, I think Stein has more in common with music than painting.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark, this is fascinating, and something I have been puzzling over without success. My thinking about cubism in painting is rudimentary. My limited way of understanding it is a breaking up of realistic objects into their constituent elements, examining anew how those elements work to form a whole, and communicating those understandings on canvas.

    I see a commonality in what Stein was trying to do, but I’m not persuaded that she out-Picasso’d Picasso. I am convinced, after spending our ModPo week with Stein, that she wrote with intent—not at all random babble—and that her intent was to make sense in a wholly new way. But I’m not persuaded that her effort succeeded at the level Picasso succeeded.

    I think what you’re writing here may be one indicator why: I’ve noticed, even with my limited viewing, that it’s not so easy to recognize a cubist Picasso as different from a cubist Braque, for example. As with imagism, total serialism, and the yet-to-be-discussed chance operations, too much prescription, and not enough room to create beyond that, perhaps? “It’s no surprise that Picasso moved on.” That’s a telling statement, and I agree. The question it raises for me is whether Stein moved on. I’m not sure she did.

    I also wonder, though, if it simply may not be possible, in the end, to be cubist in language. (And believe me, I have your essay about Anne Carson and the Experiment(al) in mind as a cautionary counterpoint to what I write.) I am convinced now that Stein succeeded in breaking apart the constituent elements of language and rethinking them in original and often edifying ways. But I am not sure that what she did moves beyond an experiment of enduring curiosity to become enduring art.

    • The cubists cared less about the objects and more about making a picture. The picture was reality – that was the point. The disassembling and reassembling of objects was just the ruse for making pictures. But the way they (the analytic cubists) did this – yes, too much prescription; the whole thing became formulaic. It was an odd phase in Picasso’s career – boring paintings and an almost scientific approach.

      I still have trouble with Stein. The class has given me more of an appreciation, but I still feel like I’m stumbling around trying to figure out what she was doing. I continue to see more of a connection to music than painting in her poetry, particularly the so-called Minimalists.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Thanks for the thread link. I think we may be in a similar place with regard to Stein. As a result of the class, I’ll never again be inclined to dismiss her work, even though I’m still not sure what to make of it. Interesting, your connecting of her work to the Minimalists. My instinct is that there are limitations on that comparison, too–I think of Steve Reich’s “phase” pieces, which have a very particular logic/system to them. Stein’s work doesn’t seem to me to have any of that. (Here’s where I wish I had at least some musicological knowledge to bring to bear.) I wonder if, in the end, we have to jettison comparison to other art forms and think solely in terms of what she’s doing with language.

      • “we have to jettison comparison to other art forms and think solely in terms of what she’s doing with language.” Yes. Strict comparisons like this can’t take you very far (and I wouldn’t be inclined to push the comparison to music). As you know I love hybrid texts as well as mixing the arts together in essays, but doing analysis is another matter. If one is attempting analysis or criticism, it’s important to make proper comparisons.

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