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.