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.
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).
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.
— Julie Reiter, Marketing Assistant, the Jewish Museum