Visitors to the Grand Palais in Paris’s new exhibition L’Aventure des Stein (The Adventure of the Steins) are greeted by a silent, grainy 8mm home video of two women and their friends sitting in a garden in 1943. This seems a rather inauspicious opening to a landmark show that brings together more than 150 works by artists such as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Degas and Renoir. The women in the garden, however, are the American writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas and L’Aventure des Stein is as much an exhibition about the influence of the Stein family as the artists they championed.
Born into an upper middle class family from California, siblings Leo, Gertrude and Michael Stein moved to Paris with Michael’s wife Sarah in the 1900’s. They quickly established themselves in Parisian intellectual society, using their homes as centres of artistic dialogue. The Steins collected large numbers of paintings and sculptures by artists who are now seen as essential signposts in the development of modern art, but whose works at the time were neither expensive nor famous. For the last five years the exhibition’s curators have re-assembled the Steins’ art collection, which since their deaths has been strewn across the globe. What is evident from this exhibition is that the family offered much more than traditional patronage in their relationships with Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and others. Money was exchanged, but so were ideas and even friendship as the Stein family offered writers, artists and avant-garde thinkers a platform and network from which to explore their potential. Despite the many famous and exceptional paintings that the exhibition reunites, it is generally structured around aspects of the Steins’ circle and their lives rather than the defined artist movements that accompanied them.
To this end, the room devoted to Picasso also explores Gertrude’s fierce loyalty to his changing style and the influence of his development into Cubism had upon her own literary style. To hear a recording of the writer reading her literary ‘portrait’ of Picasso under the gaze of his canvas portrait of her is a somewhat unnerving tribute to the pairs’ creative dialogue.
Similarly, a quotation from a letter from Matisse to Sarah on the wall of the gallery calls their relationship as “true friendship”, as implied by his portraits of her, her husband and her son in an adjoining room. Leo and Gertrude’s Saturday evening receptions at 27, rue de Fleurs affords the focus of another room. These weekly gatherings of the Parisian avant-garde were at their height in the 1910’s, contributing to the early rivalry between Matisse and Picasso and recorded in paint by those who attended.
Some of the most extraordinary images on display at the exhibition are the series of photographs of the salon of 27, rue de Fleurs in which Leo and Gertrude’s art collection was displayed. In photographs taken over twenty years, the modernist masterpieces on display in the gallery jostle for space high up the walls of the modest apartment. The siblings’ changing tastes are here recorded through the paintings they displayed, from their shared early love of Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir to their eventual split over Gertrude support for the radical Cubist movement. Despite the different artists they chose to support, what emerges is the astounding artistic judgement and influence of the Stein family in Paris. This is not an exhibition that panders to Gertrude’s fame or explores Picasso or Cezanne’s success across their careers. Instead, it offers a unique look through one of the most influential private art collections of the twentieth century to the extraordinary family who assembled it.