“The Steins Collect” opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Saturday. The exhibit brings together paintings that writer Gertrude Stein and her siblings collected during their years as art taste-makers in Paris.
Museum director Neal Benezra says the exhibit has been years in the making and the paintings, mostly by Matisse and Picasso, have been gathered from several continents.
“(We’ve borrowed) paintings from all over the world, from museums and private collections,” says Benezra. “It has to be said the most ambitious exhibition the museum has ever undertaken.”
In fact, the museum has had couriers flying across the globe in the last few weeks ferrying the paintings back to the Bay Area.
The Steins’ collection dispersed almost from the get-go. SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop says the family often sold one artist’s work to buy that of another’s. Later on some of the siblings were forced to sell paintings out of financial need.
Besides its iconic pieces of art, the exhibit is notable for its local connection. The Stein children — Gertrude, Leo and Michael — all grew up in Oakland (their father was in the cable car business). Two of them also took San Francisco natives as partners: Gertrude’s lover Alice B. Toklas and Michael’s wife Sarah. “[Sarah] was valedictorian of what was known as Girls High School in San Francisco,” says curator Bishop.
Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah had all moved to Paris by early 1904. Soon after arrival, they met the yet-to-be art giants Picasso and Matisse. The Steins ignored a general disregard for this avant-garde work and began scooping it up.
When Sarah and Michael Stein returned home to check on their properties after the 1906 earthquake, Bishop says, “they were so passionate about [Matisse’s] work that they packed three paintings and a drawing…in their luggage and took enormous pleasure in shocking their friends by showing them what was going on in Paris.”
Here’s another local tie-in: One of the audio tours for the show (produced by Earprint Productions) tells the story of a dinner party that the Steins attended with their wealthy friend, San Francisco journalist Harriet Lane Levy. When raucous crowd persuaded Levy to take the stage, she started singing the Cal fight song “Oski Wow-Wow!” Needless to say, the Parisians went wild.
Curator Bishop says this of the Steins: “They really had a profound impact on shaping taste, on helping people understand what they were seeing and process sort of the shock of these modern pictures.” So much so, says Bishop, that the family eventually priced themselves out of buying the work of those artists they had championed.
Gertrude and Leo Stein both lived out their days in Europe. But Michael and Sarah Stein returned to the Bay Area and made a home in Palo Alto, in 1935. By chance that was the same year the San Francisco Museum of Art was founded, where much of their collection is hanging through September.
And a final note for any Gertrude-philes … it’ll be a quite a summer in San Francisco for you: The Contemporary Jewish Museum is also holding an exhibit currently specifically about her life.