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Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06, oil on canvas, 100 x 81.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein. - [Beth] Standing in this gallery filled with paintings from the early 20th century, this really fits in, but the problem with that is that we don't recognize necessarily how revolutionary this painting seemed in 1906 when Picasso completed it. - [Steven] There's a famous anecdote that goes with this painting. Stein was an important collector, she was a poet and a writer, and she asked Picasso to paint her portrait. According to Stein, she visited Picasso's studio 90 times. - [Beth] And at the end of months of sitting, he actually scraped away what he had done on the face and came back to it later, so although he spent 90 sittings, the face itself was not painted with Stein in front of him, but the story that you alluded to is that when people saw this portrait, they said this looks nothing like her, and Picasso is said to have responded, "everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait. "But nevermind, in the end she will manage "to look just like it." - [Steven] Which is about the primacy of the portrait, the idea that the portrait will live on - [Beth] And a portrait by the great artist Pablo Picasso of Gertrude Stein, this is the way that we remember her. - [Steven] Which calls into question what is the function of a portrait? Is it likeness? This particular portrait may look more like an ancient Iberian sculpture, one of the archaic figures that Picasso was then studying, than Gertrude Stein's own facial features. - [Beth] Which is an odd thing, because a portrait for hundreds of years was about likeness, and this is not about how she looked, but it is very much a portrait of her presence. - [Steven] And what a powerful presence. She's got this great sense of gravity, that mask-like face seems to come towards us. - [Beth] She leans forward, her body's in the shape of a pyramid, so you do have all that weight at the bottom of the canvas. - [Steven] We know that Picasso was looking at several other earlier portraits, notably Ingres' Portrait of Monsieur Bertain at the Louvre, as well as two other portraits that Stein owned, one by Cezanne by his wife, and one by Matisse of his wife. - [Beth] And clearly, Picasso has borrowed from all three of those paintings. There are aspects of them that inform his painting of Gertrude Stein. But this is really radically different, especially that mask-like face, the disjunction between the eyes, the flatness of the plane of her face, these are things that don't look right. - [Steven] But the sitter felt that this was the truest portrait that had ever been made of her. - [Beth] In fact, she wrote, "for me, it is I, "and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I." And so although this isn't about a likeness, she felt that this portrait really represented her. - [Steven] Stein also asserted that she did in words what Picasso would do in paint. Stein was looking at words as if they were the kind of material that could be constructed and reconstructed as one places strokes on a canvas. - [Beth] Speaking of strokes on a canvas, we really see evidence of the artist's work here. There are places where the paint is applied very thickly, for example in her fingers, even though they still seem very abstracted and unfinished. There are also places, for example, around the shawl that has a clasp around her neck. There's areas of paint that are very thin, where we can almost see the canvas underneath. - [Steven] There's a tension here between Picasso's love of illusionism and his interest in beginning to undo that illusion. - [Beth] The conventions of illusionism that had come down in European art beginning in the Renaissance just didn't speak to the late 19th and early 20th century and so, this searching for a new visual language both in African art and in ancient art or pre-classical art, where figures are represented very abstractly, this finding in abstraction force and power and alternative language. - [Steven] Look at the way that he's finding the angles of the forms of her face, almost as if it's a kind of architecture. - [Beth] The right side of her face seems to be at a sharp angle to the front of her face, because of how stark that shadow is on the right side. - [Steven] The left side of her face is further away from us, her face is turned even though we have as much access to the left eye as we do to the right. - [Beth] And the eyes are also very much abstracted. They're not given a lot of expressiveness. - [Steven] It's as if the eyes are behind that mask. - [Beth] Portraits often have things in them that help us to identify the interests and personality of the sitter. If we think about Manet's portrait of Zola, for example, we have his library, images of art that he was interested in in the background, but here, the background is sketchy, it's even hard to make out the left side of that chair, and so it is a painting that refuses to give us the information that portraits generally are supposed to give. (jazz music)