'After All One Must Know More Than One Sees and One Does Not See a Cube in Its Entirety': Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Cubism

By Hilder, Jamie | Critical Survey, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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'After All One Must Know More Than One Sees and One Does Not See a Cube in Its Entirety': Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Cubism


Hilder, Jamie, Critical Survey


   THIS IS THIS DRESS, AIDER.
      Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider
   whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers.
      A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed
   king, makes a to let.

        --Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1)

   THIS IS THE DRESS, AIDER

   Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider
   whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher, munchers.
      A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king,
   makes a to let.

        --Gertrude Stein as cited by Marjorie Perloff
   in Poetics of Indeterminacy: From Rimbaud to Cage (2)

The title of the above 'object' from Tender Buttons, as cited by Marjorie Perloff, with the second 'THIS' replaced by 'THE', is not how it appears in the 1914 Claire Marie edition of the book. Strangely, this is the edition Perloff lists as her source, although as it is reprinted in The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. But there, too, the title is 'THIS IS THIS DRESS, AIDER'. There is no full stop after the title in the Selected Writings version, as there is no full stop in Perloff's example. But the title is justified on the left margin in both the Claire Marie and Selected Writings texts. The only version in which the title is centred, where the second 'THIS' has been printed as 'THE' and where there is no full stop after the title is in Gertrude Stein." Writings and Lectures, 1909-1945, but in this printing, as in all others, there is no additional comma between 'muncher' and 'munchers'. The multiple errors that have afflicted the text of Tender Buttons during its publication history are disturbing but not surprising. The book offers no standardised syntax or coherent referentiality to guide the reader; it is a text that demands that the reader see what s/he is looking at. (3)

In 1938, Gertrude Stein published Picasso, a book which is part biography and part criticism of Pablo Picasso's work and time. In it Stein claims 'I was alone at [the] time in understanding him, perhaps because I was expressing the same thing in literature'. (4) The comparison between Stein's work in the period around Tender Buttons, the period of her literary portraiture, and the cubist movement in painting that Picasso helped create has been a popular one in the history of her work's critical reception. Stephen Scobie offers an explanation as to why:

   [One] can take an art historical term such as Cubism, which has a
   (more or less) clearly defined meaning in painting, and attempt to
   apply it to literature saying, for instance, that Gertrude Stein is
   'a Cubist writer'. Such comparisons are most useful, I would argue,
   when they attempt to define or illuminate those aspects of a work in
   which it is coming up against the limits of its medium, when there
   is a perceived need to supplement one discourse with the vocabulary
   of another. The analogy to painting may be most productive at the
   point where a literary text strains against the limits of the
   verbal--when it appears, indeed, to court the annihilation of the
   verbal in the silence, or muteness, of painting. Stein's writing is
   felt to be 'like' painting precisely at the points where it seems to
   be on the edge of denying its own adequacy as words. (5)

Stein herself, in her writing about her writing, often makes use of visual analogies, but my aim in this article is not to compare passages of Tender Buttons to cubist paintings, or to argue the success or the validity of such a comparison; rather, it is to locate Stein's literary portraiture inside her own ideas about cubism and literary portraiture. The linking of her literary work to the visual style of cubism often breaks down, I think, when critics do not consider what she means when she uses the term, when they try to use her work as a bridge between the media of linguistic and visual representation. If we are to take her at her word that she was expressing the same thing in writing that Picasso was in painting, it is necessary to examine what it was, exactly, that she believed Picasso was expressing.

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