Hilary Guise on Gertrude Stein and her circle

Hilary Guise, NADFAS lecturer.

South African-born, British art historian, painter and lecturer Hilary Guise was the most recent speaker at Waikato Decorative and Fine Arts Society. While her topic was Gertrude Stein, Hilary provided a snapshot of the life of the arts salon in Paris and the shift in artistic expression that predicted the horrors of World War I.

Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania, USA in 1874. She was educated at Johns Hopkins University and moved to Paris in 1903, where she and her brother Leo became patrons of the arts. On receiving the proceeds of their trust account of 8000 Francs they bought contemporary art works including Gaugin’s and Three Tahitians, Cezanne’s Bathers and two Renoirs. When artists were included in the Saturday evening soirees at the Stein apartment, that signalled acceptance in the Paris art world. Over her life time, Gertrude Stein is reputed to have collected 105 Picassos and 75 Matisses.Picasso was a particular friend. His painting of Gertrude took over 90 sittings “and he still could not find the real Gertrude”.

Also in Stein’s realm were Braques, Rousseau, Matisse, Jewish writer and poet Max Jacob and Guillaume Appollinaire, the witty “illegitimate child of a wayward Polish aristocrat”. Avant-garde Californians moved into the same apartment building that the Steins lived. They were Isadora Duncan, who was breaking new ground in the world of dance, and her partner.

In 1907, Stein met her lifelong partner Alice B Toklas. Each evening, Alice would copy out what Gertrude had written during the day. A stream of consciousness writer, Gertrude did not use commas. She is reputed to have said, “You ought to know where to breathe without being told.” Gertrude bequeathed her writing to Toklas but the Stein family broke into the apartment and stole it, so Toklas did not ever come into possession of her inheritance.

At a time that painters represented beauty, Picasso embraced brutality and ugliness. At the Ballet Russe, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky were capturing barbarism and primitivism with their music and choreography.

Hilary said that to predict what is going to happen next in the world, look to what the artists are saying now. The sensitivity that contributes to artistic expression makes the world’s artists super-aware of where the world is heading.

Gertrude Stein, 1934
Gertrude Stein, 1934


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4 thoughts on “Hilary Guise on Gertrude Stein and her circle

  1. Judith Cartwright says:

    Hilary’s comment about artists sensing and portraying in advance where the world is heading was insightful. No doubt this is why trends in art often create discomfort in viewers.

  2. Sarah says:

    So what are artists saying today?

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