October 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm EDT | by Juliette Ebner
Seeing Stein

Francis Picabia's 'Portrait of Gertrude Stein,' a 1933 work included in the National Portrait Gallery's current 'Seeing Gertrude Stein' exhibit. (Image courtesy the Portrait Gallery)

The National Portrait Gallery’s (8th and F streets) newest exhibit, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” uses paintings, photos, videos and more to visually tell Stein’s life story.

The exhibit, curated by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer, begins in the hallway on the second floor with the first story, “Picture Gertrude.”

This part includes several images of Stein and her family, beginning when she was just a little girl, the youngest of five children.

The oddest piece in this area is “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” by Francis Picabia, done in 1933. Around this time, Stein has gotten a very short haircut, sometimes referred to as a Caesar cut, and Picabia portrayed her as “imperial.”

Unlike like other photos and paintings, Picabia fictionalized the background and Stein’s clothing, painting her in a toga like dress, leaving her arms bare. No other images in the collection picture Stein in even short sleeves.

The second story, “Domestic Stein” really explores the relationship between Stein and partner Alice B. Toklas, specially their life at home.

This part of the exhibit includes many photos of the couple’s home and some of their belongings, including two vests, or “waistcoats,” worn by Stein and a few pieces of jewelry. A section of the room is wallpapered with a pattern the couple used in their bedroom.

The third story, “Art of Friendship,” looks at the wide circle of artists Stein befriend throughout her life, including a group of lesser known younger male artists, writers and composers.

A quotation by Stein, painted above a grid of some of these younger artists, reads “We are surrounded by homosexuals, they do all the good things in all the arts.”

One of these younger artists was Sir Francis Cyril Rose, whom Stein thought would be the next Picasso. After her death, Rose created a silk scarf, featuring a neoclassical bust of Stein surrounded by an inaccurate version of her most famous maxim, “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and each corner of the scarf had a different focus.

The fourth story, “Celebrity Stein,” focuses on a six-month tour Stein went on in the U.S. and her activities during the world wars.

In the middle of a room between the fourth and fifth “story,” there’s a single, Buddha-like sculpture of Stein by Jo Davidson. A recording of Stein reading two of her word portraits, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” and “An Early Portrait of Henri Matisse,” echoes through the room.

This part of the exhibit serves as a transition from Stein’s life to works inspired by her after her death.

One of the most interesting pieces in the exhibit is part of the fifth story, Legacies, which explores the influence Stein had on American artists such as Andy Warhol, Deborah Kass and more.

“After Picasso” by Devorah Sperber is an interesting take on what is probably the most classic image of Stein. Sperber strung 5,024 spools of thread on chains to create what at first appears to be an abstract image, but when viewed through a clear acrylic sphere, the image is inverted and the “pixels” comes together.

A book by Corn and Latimer, also titled “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” accompanies the exhibit and is available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop.

The gallery has also organized special programs and events in conjunction with the exhibit.

Proof Restaurant (775 G St., N.W.) will have a special, four-course menu inspired by Toklas for $59 while the exhibit is open. There will also be two portrait story days with a focus on Stein on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Younger visitors will have the opportunity to listen to a story about Stein as well as create their own piece of art.

On Nov. 4, the Art History Program of American university is holding a lunch, tour and program as part of the second annual Feminist Art History Conference. For more information on this event, visit american.edu/cas/art-history/femconf/index.cfm.

The exhibit opened Oct. 14 and will run through Nov. 3.


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