CR Muse: The Complicated Words of Gertrude Stein

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

The list of artists and writers who arguably owe their careers to Gertrude Stein is a veritable who’s who of 20th century creative powerhouses. Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Herni Matisse, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were among the many figures she championed as a collector, and in her Parisian salon. A memorable writer and poet herself, Stein is often considered one of the greatest minds of the 1900s—although she was not without her faults.

Though she clearly had intellectual leanings from a young age, her professional foray into the arts didn’t happen until she was in her 30s. Prior to that, it seems as though Stein might have been on track to enter the medical field. She studied psychology while working on her Bachelor of Arts, and she was later admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School. But by 1903, Stein had moved to Paris with her brother Leo, where their interest in modernist painters led to the siblings becoming avid collectors and to open their own salon. After her brother moved to Italy in 1912, she ran the salon herself—but nurturing the careers of up-and-coming artists and writers wasn’t enough for Stein, who had a creative drive of her own.

Among her most famous works are the poem „Sacred Emily“ from 1913 (which features the oft-repeated line “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”), and her book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was based on her partner of the same name. Stein, an out lesbian, had no interest in hiding who she was at a time when society was more hostile to anything against the “norm.” She was radically committed to being herself, especially creatively. Though The Autobiography was Stein’s most commercially successful work, her first published writings that dealt with same-sex relationships go as far back at 1903 with her book Q.E.D., providing a massive step forward in queer visibility.

But Stein’s legacy is not without controversy. It has been said that she collaborated with pro-Nazi French government during the country’s occupation in World War II. Critics and historians are divided on this part of her life, especially given the complex nature of her identity as an openly gay, Jewish woman in the arts. Some also point to an interview she gave in 1934 as evidence that she harbored anti-Semitic views, although many argue that it was meant to be read ironically, and that Stein had a penchant for being provocative.

It is difficult to make sense of Stein’s deeply complicated politics, or how someone who lived such an openly progressive life could also be seemingly supportive of such oppressive regimes. Perhaps this is why many focus on her contributions to cultivating modern art and literature, and as a powerful female voice in a time when creative fields were still male-dominated. As a figure she has left much to discuss, to deliberate, and to ponder. But in a way, that might have been exactly what she set out to do.

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