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Gertrude Stein, an influential figure of the early 20th century art scene, is the focus of Cork Street exhibition

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Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, 1930

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Gertrude Stein was an American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector – she moved to Paris in 1903 and made the French capital her home. There, on 27, rue de Fleurs, she held weekly salons where the good and the great of modern literature and art, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others, would congregate.

Stein, who lived to the age of 72, published a quasi-memoir, The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of her life partner (Alice Toklas). It became a bestseller and vaulted Stein from relative obscurity into the glow of mainstream media attention. A quote from the book, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ has become widely known, developing idiomatic status (meaning ‘things are what they are’), and has been chosen as the name of the London, Cork Street exhibition that has opened this month.

Interior of Stein’s studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, circa 1915

Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The exhibition presents Stein as the cultural powerhouse she was, constantly pushing artists to think beyond their limits and providing a space in the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s for artists to gather and meld the vibrant cultural life of France’s capital city. The American expatriate held salons every Saturday night, from 1905 to 1928, that fast became the very epicentre of the art world. It was where artists, writers, musicians and collectors alike, would gather to debate the future. Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp were regular attendees, and so too was Marie Laurencin, Amedeo Modigliani, Francis Picabia and Henri Rousseau. Stein’s home was wonderfully art-filled – practicing what she preached by collecting the emerging artists she fraternised with.

La Grappe de Raisin by Juan Gris, 1917

Courtesy of Nahmad Projects. Photo by Stephen White & Co

La rue de la Paix by Kees van Dongen, circa 1918

Courtesy of Nahmad Projects. Photo by Stephen White & Co

This exhibition, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’, reunites the artists who attended the famous salons and whose work the Steins – Gertrude and her brother, Leo – collected. On display are works by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Klee, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso and Kees van Dongen. Many artists who have recently been the subject of major exhibitions at some of our biggest London galleries. In 1905, when Stein acquired Matisse’s brightly coloured Women With a Hat, it earned her a reputation as a maverick collector overnight – the portrait is now credited as a lynchpin in the Fauvism movement of modern art, pioneered by the likes of Matisse and Braque.

Installation view of the exhibition

Courtesy of Nahmad Projects. Photo by Stephen White & Co

Born into a wealthy family, Stein inherited early in her life. It was with her brother that she started collecting art – rather than buying bonds – with her inheritance. Soon they had snapped up historical works by El Greco and Delacroix, and it was later, that they began collecting works by Matisse and Picasso. Stein’s brother Leo emigrated to Italy in 1921 – at which point they decided to divide the collection, consolidating Gertrude’s love of the contemporary avant-garde.

Guitare et compotier by Pablo Picasso, 1924

Courtesy of Nahmad Projects. Photo by Stephen White & Co

Guitare sur une table by Pablo Picasso, 1921

Courtesy of Nahmad Projects. Photo by Stephen White & Co

Her influence on modern art cannot be overstated – a collector herself, she encouraged her friends to collect. Picasso even painted her (later bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it still hangs today among early Picasso and Matisse works). Picasso and Stein’s relationship proved to be a great stimulant to both artist and author. Picasso’s portrait of Stein is credited as being a turning point in his development as an artist, paving the way for his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). At the exhibition, two major Picasso paintings, Guitare sur une table (1921) and Guitare et compotier (1924), will be on display – reflecting their special relationship and Stein’s profound influence on the Cubist movement. The exhibition is open until 29 July – and lovers of 20th century art will undoubtedly find it well worth a visit.

Gertrude Stein, 1936

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Gertrude Stein: a rose is a rose is a rose, 3 June – 29 July 2021, Nahmad Projects, 2 Cork Street, London W1S 3LB.

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