The Artist in Word and Image in Gertrude Stein's Dix Portraits

By Blau, Amy | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Artist in Word and Image in Gertrude Stein's Dix Portraits


Blau, Amy, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The illustrated Dix portraits brings literary portraits by Gertrude Stein together with drawings of her subjects. Stein uses her portraits of artists to depict her own literary genius and acknowledges only Picasso as an artistic genius equal to herself; his self-portrait underscores their reciprocal understanding and creative primacy.

Granted, she used to say, that the influences which make a new movement in art and literature have continued and are making a new movement in art and literature; in order to seize these influences and create as well as re-create them there needs a very dominating creative power--Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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Gertrude Stein believed that originality comes from creative greatness, and repeatedly emphasized the originality and reciprocity of artistic creation between herself and Picasso. Stein saw the first signs of abstraction in Picasso's 1906 portrait of her, and acknowledged Picasso's influence on her writing, particularly on her portraits. According to Arnold Ronnebeck, Stein once said, "Well Pablo (Picasso) is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words" (270, emph. Ronnebeck's). Herwig Friedi presents the dialogue between Stein and Picasso through their portraits of each other as a creative process of international modernism itself (243). The Autobiography of Alice B. Tokias describes Stein's renewed interest in writing portraits in the mid-1920s in the course of thinking through and considering the originality of a new generation of Paris artists, the Neo-Romantics, who reacted against cubism and abstraction (Stein, Autobiography 215; Soby 11). The rare illustrated Dix portraits, which collects ten of Stein's literary portraits in the original English and a translation into French by Georges Hugnet and Virgil Thomson, and ten illustrations consisting of portraits and self-portraits of and by Stein's subjects, has received very little critical attention but has a great deal to say not only about the interdisciplinary relations of the portrait in text and in image but also about Stein's understanding of the role of the modern artist and her self-presentation with respect to the other artists in the select gallery of this portrait collection. Ostensibly without picturing Stein, it concerns itself very much with her image as a writer.

Given the genre of the portrait and the artistic ability of many of those that Stein depicted in words, the notion of illustration must have suggested itself immediately, if it was not an establishing factor in the compilation of Dix portraits. The first section of Stein's Dix portraits contains the written portraits: "If I told him / a completed portrait of Picasso" (1923); "Guillaume Apollinaire" (1913); "Erik Satie" (1922); "Pavlik Tchelitchef or Adrian Arthur" (1926); "Virgil Thomson" (1928); "Christian Berard" (1928); "Bernard Far" (1929); "Kristians Tonny" (1929); "George Hugnet" (1928); and "More Grammar Genia Berman" (1929). The dates are those indicated in Stein's Portraits and Prayers, in which all of these portraits are reprinted. (1) The drawn portraits by Picasso, Tchelitchew, Berard, Tonny, and Berman comprise the second section of the book. The third section contains Hugnet's and Thomson's translations of Stein's texts. Definitive reasons that these particular artists were included in Stein's volume require a more in-depth view of the publishing history of the book than this project can provide. Nevertheless, Stein dearly chose collaborators and friends from several Paris circles whose work she admired when the book was created; all of her subjects produced works of music, art, or literature (seen broadly). Poet Guillaume Apollinaire and composer Erik Satie had been friends of both Stein and Picasso before their deaths, Apollinaire's in 1918, Satie's in 1925. Stein met historian, translator, and later Vichy collaborator Bernard Fayin 1926 and maintained a friendship with him throughout her life (Padgette 186). …

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