Inspired by a trip into the city to see the Gertrude and Leo Stein exhibit at the Met, I’ve started reading Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

First of all, the exhibit was a large one, and very impressive, even if the Steins didn’t actually own all of the paintings in the show. Many were similar to those they hung in their atelier, or paintings they’d admired.

It was Leo, apparently, who was the great appreciator. He had excellent taste and lots of money from rentals and investments in San Francisco. He collected Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne, among others and his patronage was helpful to many later successful artists at important times in their lives. In a sideways scrawl, I copied a quote of Leo’s about Cezanne: “His greatest strength was rendering mass with a vital intensity that is unparalleled in the whole history of painting. No matter what is subject is — landscape, still life — there is always this remorseless intensity, this endless upending, gripping of the form, the unceasing effort to force it to reveal its absolute self-existing quality of mass.” It’s an interesting quote — not brilliant but surprising considering my former impression of Stein, which was that the art was more a social activity.

Picking up Malcolm’s book, I imagined I’d learn more about their relationship, and about Stein which I did. Unfortunately, it falls in that category of “maybe I didn’t want to know this much” because she was insufferable. She wrote a half hour a day and apparently spent the rest of the day socializing and ordering Toklas around. She and Leo had an ugly split, with both basically calling the other a talentless jerk far inferior to themselves. Not that this is unusual in siblings, I suppose. Then there was Stein’s fairly certain cozying with the Nazis (or at least one Nazi) to save their skins during WWII, about which I’d sort of known, but combined with her extreme narcissism made for uneasy reading.

Basically, I’ve done this sort of whipsaw from finding Stein a flawed but fascinating but flawed figure to being sort of appalled by her. And being appalled by my reaction to learning more about her. It’s an old question, that of can you admire a writer whose life you don’t respect, and it’s one I’ve come across before in the familiar list — Naipaul, Hemingway, Picasso. I still don’t know where I come out on it, but I am still plowing forward with the Malcolm book, gleefully noting some of Stein’s better quotes, such as:

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”

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