Artists of the
“You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein said to Ernest Hemingway, who used the quote as an epigraph for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). Stein was chastising Hemingway and his peers for their drinking, but the phrase lost generation became a label for the literary and visual artists who gathered in Paris between the world wars—many of whom passed through the home Stein shared with her companion, Alice B. Toklas.
Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, “Remarks are not literature,” then disproved her maxim by writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Stein’s own autobiography told through the eyes of her companion), a book composed of nothing but remarks that somehow manages to be compelling literature. The chapters recounting Stein’s life in Paris before World War I provide up-close and personal views of the painters who invented modernism—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, Georges Braque—whom Stein befriended and whose work she collected and championed.
After the war, the cast passing through Stein’s salon at 27 rue de Fleurus changed. Hemingway, then a stringer for a Canadian newspaper and intent on becoming a great writer, appeared on the scene. “He sat in front of Gertrude Stein and listened and looked. They talked then, and more and more, a great deal together,” according to Autobiography. This intense, unlikely friendship—between the middle-aged lesbian writer whose linguistic experimentation was widely ridiculed and a macho 20-something who would be acclaimed for his spare prose style—is charted a bit differently in Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, his posthumously published “sketches” of his expatriate life in Paris during the 1920s.
From the testimony of A Moveable Feast, it appears that the young Ernest Hemingway socialized mostly with other writers—Ezra Pound, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald—during his 1920s tenure in Paris. He was also a regular patron of the lending library at Sylvia Beach’s English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. But one painter does figure prominently in Feast: Pascin, born Julius Mordecai Pincas and also known as Jules Pascin. Though described by Hemingway as “a very good painter,” Pascin was a minor artist who mostly painted pretty, often erotic, pictures of young women; he was, however, a first-class roué. That’s how Hemingway depicts him in the chapter “With Pascin at the Dôme.” When Hemingway runs into Pascin one evening at Le Dôme Café—a favorite Montparnasse hangout of American expats—the artist sits at a table, drunk, in the company of two young ladies who are (1) sisters and (2) his models. Ostensibly witty banter ensues between the writer, the painter and the women—centering mostly on Pascin’s having “banged” one of the sisters, in between brushstrokes, all afternoon. It’s the sketch in Feast that carries the strongest whiff of the decadence that legendarily prevailed in entre-deux-guerres Paris.
In the Christian calendar, a moveable feast is a holiday with a date that varies from year to year. Easter is a moveable feast; Christmas isn’t. Ernest Hemingway’s Moveable Feast puts a different spin on the term, making life in 1920s Paris seem like a peripatetic party whose guests included everyone who was anyone. That’s the picture Woody Allen conjures in Midnight in Paris, which transports its present-day protagonist, aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), to the City of Light’s jazz age heyday. On these magical midnight excursions back in time, Gil meets and takes up with all his heroes—Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Cole Porter, and surrealists Man Ray, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) critiques Gil’s manuscript, and Hemingway (Corey Stoll) pontificates about sex, courage, manliness and truth. The portrayals are caricatures—Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill) are mutually jealous drunks; Dalí (Adrien Brody) is a show-offy, egomaniacal self-promoter. But Stein really was a generous reader of other writers’ work, and Midnight’s self-important Hemingway distinctly resembles the ambitious, full-of-himself young man one encounters in the pages of A Moveable Feast.
Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, with whom she lived in Paris until he was supplanted in Gertrude’s affections by Alice B. Toklas, amassed an extraordinary collection of avant-garde art during the decade before World War I: works by then-little-known or unknown artists—Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Rousseau and others—whose reputations would soar in succeeding years. But Stein’s judgment and taste faltered in the 1920s, as she developed passions for a string of lesser talents. One was the Englishman Francis Rose—at the time of her death, in 1946, she owned 100 pictures by this justly forgotten painter. Another was the somewhat less forgettable Russian surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew. Ernest Hemingway, whose admiration for Stein cooled after several years of friendship, noted the changes at 27 rue de Fleurus in one of A Moveable Feast’s sketches. “It was sad,” he writes, “to see new worthless pictures hung in with the great pictures.” Then in the 1930s Stein bestowed her blessing on French artist Francis Picabia. As a young painter, Picabia—an early cubist and cofounder of Dada—had been an interesting artist; by the ’30s he was a hack, as the portraits he painted of Stein so unfortunately demonstrate.
Gertrude Stein, a heavyset woman with a face often described as that of a Roman emperor, loved to have her portrait made. The first and best-known Stein portrait was painted by Pablo Picasso from 1905 to 1906, during his pre-cubist phase. According to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein sat for this portrait some 90 times. But Picasso didn’t complete it until, on a trip to Spain, he repainted the head from memory and imagination. The resulting masklike visage—presaging the more radically masklike faces of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—may be the most iconic in modern portraiture. This and some other notable depictions of Stein, including the 1907 portrait by Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (which, like Picasso’s, hung in the atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus) and the grand, brooding hulk fashioned by American sculptor Jo Davidson in the early 1920s, were done before Stein cut off almost all her hair in 1926, creating the mannish look most people associate with her. This close-cropped ’do also heightened the imperial aspect of her mien—as underscored in Francis Picabia’s monumental (and ridiculous) portrait of a toga-clad Stein, from 1933.
Like Picasso, Juan Gris was a Spaniard transplanted to Paris, and like Picasso, he was a friend of Gertrude Stein’s—her second-best painter friend, after Picasso. Gris rates many mentions in Autobiography—he and Stein were close from the time they met, during World War I, until his premature death in 1927. Curiously, though, the reader gets little feeling for what Gris was like as a person. Picasso—opinionated, bullheaded, charming, romantically wayward—comes alive in Autobiography’s pages. Gris is an abstraction defined mostly by his suffering, or, as Stein puts it, his “martyrdom.” It was a martyrdom compounded of sickness (Gris was seriously ill, off and on, during the period Stein knew him), of poverty (few of his paintings sold during his lifetime) and of a temperament Stein describes, vaguely, as “melancholy” and “tormented.” But Stein appreciated Gris’s talent for transforming Picasso’s and Braque’s cubist experimentations into mature, almost mystically luminescent art. As is evident in the eulogy Stein composed for him, “The Life and Death of Juan Gris,” the two truly loved each other. She writes that Gris “said I was everything”—an assessment that, for an egotist of her caliber, must have sounded just right.
In the salon where Stein and Toklas presided, the artists came and went: French artists (Matisse, Braque, etc.), British artists (Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell), American artists (Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth) and smatterings of Russians, Germans and Hungarians. But none had the presence or staying power of Picasso—one of the three “geniuses” Toklas (as voiced by Stein) claimed to have met. (The other two were the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and, of course, Stein herself.) By the time the 1920s rolled around, Stein and Picasso had been friends for 15 years. Their conversations—when not quarrels—were mostly reminiscences. He had become an established artist; his name appeared in the papers, and his work commanded prices that kept him comfortable. (He had put aside cubism—though he’d return to its pictorial principles again and again—and adopted a neoclassical style that occupied him for several years.) In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it’s the “appalling but romantic” Picasso of the prewar years who engages: a “little bullfighter” so self-assured that he declares he draws every bit as well as Toulouse-Lautrec, and so vainly absurd that he once asks Toklas if she doesn’t think he resembles Abraham Lincoln.
Artists are a competitive bunch, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas attests to their sometimes amusing, sometimes cutthroat jockeying for attention and their all-consuming self-regard. In an early scene, Stein throws a lunch party for all her artist friends, contriving to keep the guests happy and relaxed by seating each artist directly across from where one of his own pictures is hung on the wall. Only Matisse notices this “wicked” stratagem. Later Autobiography disdainfully records how several artists in Stein’s circle, as they gain prominence, gather competing bands of followers. But there’s a truly tragic dimension to the competition between Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. “Juan Gris was the only person whom Picasso wished away,” writes Stein, who bitterly informs Picasso that he has “no right to mourn” following Gris’s untimely death in 1927. In Stein’s account, Picasso’s mean-spirited disregard of his younger countryman seems born of jealousy over Stein and Gris’s friendship. That reading suits Stein’s narcissism but ignores a master-versus-disciple antagonism that may have motivated Picasso. Gris idolized Picasso, at first imitating the cubist style Picasso and Braque invented and then excelling at it. Picasso might have disliked Gris for becoming a better cubist than himself.