Unmasking Pablo's Gertrude: queer desire and the subject of portraiture.

Author:Lubar, Robert S.
Position:Painter Pablo Picasso's work 'Portrait of Gertrude Stein'

Spring was coming and the sittings were coming to an end. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can't see you any longer when I look, he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that.(1)

Gertrude Stein's anecdote about the genesis of Picasso's portrait of her [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] is the fulcrum for an elaborate narrative of sexual identity, masquerade, and power in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933. After sitting for Picasso some eighty times over the course of the autumn and winter of 1905-6, during which time her friendship and artistic dialogue with the young painter have grown in intensity, the sessions abruptly come to an end with an act of erasure, a literal effacement of Gertrude's visage. Gertrude and her brother Leo leave for Fiesole sometime around late March or early April 1906, and Picasso and his lover Fernande Olivier depart for Spain (Barcelona and the village of Gosol) in early June. The very day he returns to Paris, Gertrude tells us, Picasso completes the portrait from memory.(2)

As several commentators have remarked, Gertrude's chronology of events is surely exaggerated.(3) More important than the precise moment when the portrait was completed, however, is the resonance of the phrase, "I can't see you any longer when I look." I think it matters little whether those words were uttered by Picasso, or belong to Gertrude speaking through Picasso. What counts is their significance to the author. In the introduction to her 1938 monograph on Picasso, Stein sets the stage for the historical accomplishments of her hero: "When he was nineteen years old Picasso came to Paris," she writes,

that was in 1900, into a world of painters who had completely learned everything they could from seeing at what they were looking. From Seurat to Courbet they were all of them looking with their eyes and Seurat's eyes then began to tremble at what his eyes were seeing, he commenced to doubt if in looking he could see.(4)

Musing over the traditional mimetic function of painting, Stein directly implicates Picasso in modernism's historical critique of visuality.

There is a more precise way, however, in which the relation between looking and seeing might be configured within the space of representation: the idea of painting as a trap for what Jacques Lacan calls le regard (the gaze), which, in the case of direct portraiture, insinuates itself in the form of a highly complex economy of psychic and social exchanges between the painter and the sitter. For what Stein points to on the underside of mimesis is the idea of representation as a mechanism of revelation and occlusion, a frame for the gaze in the field of the Other. "In our relationship to things as constituted by the path of vision and ordered in the figures of representation," Lacan writes, "something glides, passes, transmits itself from stage to stage, in order always to be in some degree eluded there - it is that which is called the regard."(5) I submit that Picasso's effacement of Gertrude's head and his delayed substitution of a mask are the outward signs of that something that eludes representation yet remains ever present within the structure of the visual field: the complex trajectory of desire. Picasso's inability to recognize Gertrude Stein as an intelligible subject of portraiture may, in this light, be approached as a problem in representation that exceeds the traditional limits of subject-object relations.

Who was this figure Picasso could no longer "see" or, more to the point, refused to "know"? Can we speak of Gertrude Stein as a unitary subject outside the field of representation that is her portrait? Is she an object of visual apprehension for the artist, or is the portrait the index of a scopic encounter within an unstable economy of subject positions occupied by both the artist and the sitter? Gertrude herself seems to have posed these questions in the Autobiography, where, as Neil Schmitz has observed, the presence of three portraits can be detected: "the monumental Gertrude who sits heavily in Picasso's celebrated portrait . . . Gertrude's Alice's Gertrude, a cunning self-portrait always framing the significance of Picasso's portrait, and a third, the self-effacing portrait of the I who at last seizes Alice's discourse, announces the writer's presence, and cleverly declares our innocence."(6) To be sure, Gertrude Stein conceived of autobiography as an elaborate game of masking, a literary genre in which the self is staged as the site of multiple and conflicting identifications. To use Stein's autobiography as a point of entry to map the effects of Picasso's portrait is, then, to enter the field of the performative subject. In effect, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Stein's response to the inverted questions of identity Picasso poses in the portrait: "Who is Gertrude Stein? What is she to/of me? Who am I to myself?"

And then there is the matter of firsthand accounts by friends and critics who have painted their own portraits of the author. Here is Fernande Olivier describing Gertrude in 1933: "Masculine in her voice, in her whole bearing."(7) And Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude's close friend and literary agent in America, commenting on her massive physique: "a Rabelaisian woman with a splendid thoughtful face; mind dominating her matter."(8) And Mabel Dodge, reminiscing about her days in Paris:

Gertrude Stein was prodigious. Pounds and pounds and pounds piled up on her skeleton - not the billowing kind, but massive, heavy fat. She wore some covering of corduroy or velvet and her crinkly hair was brushed back and twisted up high behind her jolly, intelligent face. She intellectualized her fat, and her body seemed to be the large machine that her large nature required to carry it.(9)

And, finally, John Richardson, Picasso's most scrupulous biographer: "She was in some respects a throwback to the self-fertilizing goddesses and dryads of folklore, who are as fearsome and all-knowing as any male deity. Besides being a hieratic earth mother, she was a new species, a kind of androgyne both more feminine and more masculine than the adolescent waifs of 1905. An 'hommesse.'"(10)

It is not entirely clear to me whose testimony is most reliable, as each author writes from a position that carries heavy emotional and ideological baggage - from Fernande's annoyance over the publication of Gertrude's autobiography before her own memoirs had appeared(11) to Richardson's voice of narrative authority as a biographical historian. What, precisely, does Fernande mean by "masculine," and how secure is the term? Is Van Vechten's massive "Rabelaisian woman" a function, perhaps, of the carnivalesque mask about which Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote?(12) How exactly did Gertrude "intellectualize" her physicality, and what does that characterization tell us about the ways in which she negotiated the mind/body relationship in her life and art? And what would Alice have thought about Richardson's characterization of her lover as a self-fertilizing goddess, or for that matter an "hommesse," a she-man suspended somewhere between the androgyne of fin de siecle aesthetes and the congenital inverts of the sexologists?(13) Is this Gertrude's Gertrude, Picasso's Gertrude, or Richardson's Picasso's Gertrude? Would Alice have preferred the term lesbian?

I am rehearsing these options to indicate the ways in which Gertrude is both a subject in portraiture and the subject of portraiture, a physical site of specular identifications and phantasmatic projections. "Yes," Picasso tells Alice in the Autobiography, "everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will. . . ."(14) And when, years later, Gertrude cuts her hair short, Picasso inquires accusatorily: "And my portrait?" only to take comfort in the recognition, "mais, quand meme tout y est, all the same it is all there."(15) Finally, there is Gertrude speaking in her own voice in the little monograph on Picasso: "I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait, for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."(16) Putting the indexical shifters "I" and "me" to good use, Gertrude at once opens subject positions and plays on identity as the condition of a subject-in-alteration.

With these considerations in mind, let us return to the scene of the drama, Paris in 1905, and set the stage for Portrait of Gertrude Stein as a performance of identity in the theater of representation. Pablo is twenty-four years old in 1905, Gertrude seven years his senior. "It happens often in the twenty-ninth year of life," Gertrude writes in an early novel, Fernhurst,(17)

that all the forces that have been engaged through the years of childhood, adolescence and youth in confused and ferocious combat range themselves in ordered ranks . . . until at last we reach . . . the straight and narrow gate-way of maturity and life which was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.(18)

It is Leo, not Gertrude, who discovers the youthful Picasso,(19) but it is Gertrude who claims the artist as her own, with a proprietary attitude that comes with age, experience, and social standing. In the portrait she paints of her relationship with Pablo in the Autobiography, Gertrude is simultaneously nurturing older sister, cultivating a precocious but unformed genius; concerned Maecenas who prevails on Etta Cone to buy Picasso's drawings when the artist is in need of money; adviser and confidante, privy to Pablo's "marital" conflicts with Fernande and, later, to his affair with Eva (Marcelle Humbert). In the monograph on Picasso she even suggests that the young artist came of age as a man and realized his genius under her influence:

The first picture we had of his is, if you like, rose or harlequin, it is The Young Girl With a Basket of Flowers, it...

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