Chantal Joffe’s Portraits of Gertrude Stein


Chantal Joffe, Gertrude Stein, 2014. Three portraits. Oil on canvas, 21 ⅝ × 18 ⅛ × 1 in.; 15 ¾ x 15 ¾ x 1 ⅝ in.; 12 ⅛ x 11 ¾ x 1 ⅝ in.. Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Cheim & Read, New York. © Chantal Joffe. 


On view now, the latest installment of Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings is a series of 34 portraits entitled Hannah, Gertrude, Alice, Betty, Nadine, Golda, Susan, Claude, Nancy, Grace, Diane . . . by London-based painter Chantal Joffe. Joffe’s intimate and expressive paintings depict 20th century Jewish women who contributed significantly to art, literature, philosophy, and politics. Among the more recognizable figures portrayed by Joffe is Gertrude Stein, who is no stranger to portraiture (traditional and less so). That the reputed writer is a subject of Joffe’s installation in the Skirball Lobby is fitting: Stein has been woven into the fabric of the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection, temporary exhibitions — such as The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons (2005) and Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore (2011) — and public programs. By electing to paint three portraits of Stein, Joffe picks up a thread about Stein and portraiture that has passed through the Museum’s history to the present.

Featured in Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters (2011). Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone in Settignano, Italy, June 26, 1903. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collection, CG.12

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933),
Alice B. Toklas recalls:

After a little while I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will, he said.

The layers embedded in this dialogue are difficult to sort out. On the surface, it sounds like a frank exchange between Stein’s lifelong partner, Toklas — whom Joffe also depicts in her series — and Pablo Picasso. Yet The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not Toklas’s account of her life, but rather a novel by Stein. The intentionally misleading title and first-person narration make us skeptical of this conversation between Toklas and Picasso. What about the book’s title is true — does the emphasis fall on “biography of Toklas” or on “autobiography”? In other words, is Stein faithfully representing her partner’s life story, or her own?

The interpretation that the novel is, in effect, the author’s self-portrait speaks to Joffe’s own artistic practice. As described by Kelly Taxter, the Jewish Museum’s Assistant Curator and the exhibition’s organizer, Joffe’s “style is direct and gestural. These are not exact or ‘true’ depictions but charged with the artist’s technical, conceptual, and emotional responses.” Joffe’s paintings of Stein then may be as much triumphant portrayals of the writer as they are self-portraits of the painter. Moreover, following extensive research of her subjects, Joffe seems to echo Stein’s experimentation with — and even rejection of — traditional portraiture. For example, that Joffe painted the writer’s portrait at least thrice speaks to the same process that Stein applauds in her Lectures in America essay “Portraits and Repetition” (1935).

Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980, screenprint on paper, 40 x 32 in. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Lorraine and Martin Beitler © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Joffe’s new series was inspired by Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980), a print portfolio in the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection and the subject of the Museum’s exhibition Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered (2008). Warhol’s portraits celebrate subjects whom he dubbed his “Jewish geniuses,” including, again, Stein. This portfolio also serves as the basis for the program Wish You Were Here, a series of interviews with Warhol’s (deceased) subjects embodied by significant (and living) figures. Like Joffe’s three paintings of Stein, Wish You Were Here’s unusual approach to interviews by way of “performed portraits” is infused with Stein’s pushing of the genre and medium. Aptly, this past November Gertrude Stein — portrayed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who recently was named Director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and GAM — conversed with Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Jewish Museum.

In his Wish You Were Here introduction, Hoffmann claimed that Stein’s writing “broke with all the well-established forms of narrative [of her period]” and “presents stream of consciousness experiments, rhythmical essays, or portraits that were designed to evoke — [as Hemingway said] — the excitement of pure being. It can be seen as literature’s answer to Cubism, as Picasso once put it.” The poet’s word portraits did seem to answer Cubism, as presumably Stein wrote If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso, published in Vanity Fair in 1924, after Picasso showed her his oil painting entitled Gertrude Stein (1905)Later in the interview, Christov-Bakargiev as Stein again raised the topic of Picasso’s portrait: “[Pablo said] it doesn’t look like you today but it will look like you.” Picasso’s remark sounds as strangely portentous aloud as it reads in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — returning to the passage mentioned above, what did the co-father of Cubism mean that Stein will look like his portrait? Perhaps Picasso was conceding the power of portraitists to control the images and identities of their sitters. Indeed, the renderings of Stein by Picasso, Warhol, and, now, Joffe have long outlived the cherished jack-of-all-trades writer — and today continue to impart visions of Stein to ever new generations.

Stein once said, “I have always noticed that in portraits of really great writers the mouth is always firmly closed.” It couldn’t be more fitting that Picasso, Warhol, and Joffe have represented the great Stein with tightly closed lips.

Visit Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Chantal Joffe to see all 34 portraits by the artist. And view footage of Wish You Were Here: Gertrude Stein on JMTV.


— Julie Reiter, Marketing Assistant, the Jewish Museum

12 Days Left in May to Celebrate
Mid-Century Culture with an All-Access Pass!




Throughout the month of May, New York City has been abuzz with mid-century madness. To celebrate this collective nostalgia for the culture of the 1950s and ’60s, the Jewish Museum has partnered with four other institutions to offer the #MCMNYC2015 Culture Pass.

NYCxDesign covers Mid-Century May NYC in a recent blog post, which is excerpted here:

Mid-century culture is making a comeback. From television shows like Mad Men to renewed interest in design from the era, the 1950s and ‘60s aesthetic has permeated modern-day culture. And this nostalgia for all things mid-century has blossomed in New York museums, with exhibitions that explore art, design, advertising, television, and popular culture of the period. Five Manhattan museums in particular have joined forces to offer the Mid-Century May NYC Culture Pass. Less than the cost of two museum visits, the $30 ticket grants month-long access to all five institutions: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; The Jewish Museum; Museum of Arts and Design; Museum of the City of New York; and Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. While the five featured exhibitions commonly celebrate the era, each show offers a distinct take.

To learn more about the featured exhibitions, read the complete article on NYCxDesign.

And it’s not too late to purchase an #MCMNYC2015 Culture Pass on the website or at any participating institution. Enjoy all five museums, again and again, throughout the last 12 days of May.


NYJFF and Cannes:
Looking Back and Forth at Jewish Film

Viviane (played by Ronit Elkabetz) in Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014), directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. Courtesy of Music Box Films


Throughout the course of its nearly 25-year history, the New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF) — co-presented each January by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center — has selected a number of films that were originally unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, such as Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open (NYJFF 2010) and Ari Folman’s The Congress (NYJFF 2014). The NYJFF curators are keeping an especially close eye on the 68th annual Cannes Festival taking place through May 24, with this year’s juries, lineup, and honorees proving to be particularly thrilling for any aficionado of Jewish cinema.

Lola (played by Isabella Rossellini) in The Zigzag Kid (2012), directed by Vincent Bal.

Of particular significance to the New York Jewish Film Festival is the selection of Ronit Elkabetz, the French-Israeli filmmaker and actress, to preside over the jury for Critics’ Week, a Cannes subsection dedicated to first and second films from rising talent. Elkabetz co-directed and played the lead role in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which the 24th annual NYJFF screened this past January. In Gett, Elkabetz delivers a haunting and intimate performance as a woman struggling to finalize her divorce in a religious court in Israel, a country in which only rabbis can legalize the dissolution of a marriage — and only with the husband’s consent. Elkabetz is a familiar face at the NYJFF, as she previously starred in its 2012 Opening Night film Mabul (The Flood). While Elkabetz is a megastar in Israel, she is less well known in the United States, making her appointment as president of Critics’ Week not only momentous for her career, but also for the larger community of Israeli cinema.

Past NYJFF talent seems to be exceptionally boisterous in this year’s Cannes chorus of jurymen, filmmakers, and honorees. Isabella Rossellini — who was riveting in Left Luggage (NYJFF 1999) and The Zigzag Kid (NYJFF 2014) — oversees the festival subsection Un Certain Regard. French film veteran Agnès Varda, whose Diary of a Pregnant Woman was featured in the 2005 NYJFF, will be the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’Or, Cannes’ most prestigious award. And French director Elie Wajeman, whose film Aliyah premiered at the 2013 NYJFF, debuts a new period drama entitled The Anarchists at the 68th annual Cannes.

Stay tuned for the imminent 25th anniversary of the New York Jewish Film Festival to see which of Cannes’ 2015 hits will be celebrated by the 2016 NYJFF.


— Jaron Gandelman, Curatorial Assistant for Media and Coordinator, New York Jewish Film Festival, with thanks to Julie Reiter, Marketing Assistant, the Jewish Museum