"Dogs Bark": War, Narrative, and Historical Syncopation in Gertrude Stein's Late Work

By Bergen, Kristin | Criticism, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

"Dogs Bark": War, Narrative, and Historical Syncopation in Gertrude Stein's Late Work


Bergen, Kristin, Criticism


In 1937, with bloody civil war dividing his native Spain and Fascist power consolidating across Europe, Pablo Picasso began to produce his most explicitly politicized compositions. As he completed the final version of his celebrated protest against the German bombing of Guernica, his friend and artistic collaborator, Gertrude Stein, was at work on a rather different project: a short study of Picasso himself, his painting, and the status of aesthetic production in the twentieth century. Picasso, her first major work written in French, appeared in 1938 as part of a series of art books published by the Librairie Floury and was later translated by Alice Toklas for English and American publication. Written in Stein's ostensibly more accessible style, the book incorporates biography and art criticism into an effort to explain her friend's (and her own) aesthetic intentions and, by extension, to continue her sustained project of defining a poiesis adequate to the contemporary moment. In its tone, celebratory and even cheerful, it seems to emanate from a different world-one that had not just produced Guernica and Guernica (1937).

Although the original French edition of Picasso refers to "un grand tableau sur l'Espagne: Guernica" (a large painting about Spain: Guernica), by 1938 the mural's title has been quietly redacted from the Englishlanguage translation.1 There, Guernica appears in the last pages only obliquely, as a nameless "large picture about Spain" whose only significance is that it marked Picasso's triumphant return to painting after a brief and painful withdrawal. Stein attributes his "renouvellement" (translated as "effervescence") to the civil war, but forecloses a political interpretation of its effect on him: "It was not the events themselves that were happening in Spain which awoke Picasso but the fact that they were happening in Spain." She makes no mention of the painting's content or context, describing only the formal quality of its "calligraphy."2

The brief epilogue following the passage is a breathless encomium to airplanes and destruction that refrains from acknowledging their terrible historical intimacy.3 "The earth seen from an airplane is more splendid" than from any earthbound perspective and reminds Stein of "the lines of cubism . . . the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves." The twentieth century is "splendid" for this reason and because it is "a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed"; Picasso's "splendor" lies in his uncanny vision of the world as if seen from an airplane (without his having flown in one) and of "things destroyed as they never have been destroyed.""1 But is there a modern painting whose perspective is more emphatically ground level than that of Guernica? Considered next to Picasso's contemporaneous treatment of these same subjects, Stein's might seem almost obscene. How, in a book about Picasso, who has just stunned the world with Guernica, can Stein write so gaily of airplanes and destruction?

Juxtaposition of their two projects might seem to validate the criticism voiced by both Stein's contemporaries and our own that, in her literary work as in her personal opinion, she was politically oblivious, at best. At a moment when, as Carl Van Vechten wrote to her, "[e]ven Muriel Draper is holding communist meetings in her pretty room and talking like mad about Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys over the telephone," Stein seems content to write about the beauty and splendor of Picasso's painting, and of her charming friendship with him.s This sort of criticism intensifies when turned to her wartime writings: even as she and Toklas served as ambulance drivers while the Great War raged all around them, Stein's literary attention remained focused on formal innovations of the sort developed in Tender Buttons (1913); her World War II writings, most of which address the war explicitly, attracted still greater derision. …

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