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Picasso by Stein


Picasso by Stein contains five sections and a postscript that are structurally linked by, and radiating widely from, Gertrude Stein’s 1938 booklet Picasso. The booklet originally was written and published in French (an exceptional endeavor for Stein) and then translated to English by Alice Toklas and significantly re-edited by Stein. This dissertation offers a comparative study of the French and English publications as well as considers the role and function of art criticism and biographical writing within Stein’s oeuvre, particularly in how they overlap with or become part of her broader poetic project.

Rather than reading Picasso to glean express information on Pablo Picasso’s art, or to correlate Stein’s projects with Picasso’s in order to explicate, or to add luster, to her writing, I argue that Stein figures the rise of modern art, illustrated through Picasso, as the development of a language-based and ultimately poetic thinking in pictures. Stein’s insights into Picasso’s achievements – with her studies ranging from Young Girl With a Basket of Flowers (1905) to Guernica (1938) – are as necessary to understanding his role in modern art as the writings of Guillaume Apollinaire and David-Henry Kahnweiler, and they direct us to the foundational, but often overlooked, presence of poetry in the trajectory of twentieth and twenty-first century art. Further, they foreshadow critical insights on abstraction and semiotics made in later art writing, such as those by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. I propose that in writing about Picasso, Stein in fact writes about poetry (including, of course, her own poetry) as a conceptualist force: how it frames, re-frames, our perceptual procedures and capacities; how it provide us with experimental and expansive models of seeing and reading, or what Stein calls “direct vision;” and ultimately how it provides us with models for producing opposition against dominant structures of identification and interpretation. This sense of the genre as a both a perceptual and persuasive mode, rather than a set of fixed forms, underlies Stein’s crucial legacy in American avant-garde writing – illustrated here through citations of the ways Stein has been read by, or demonstrates clear affinity to, contemporary writers such as David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Jamaica Kincaid, Harryette Mullen, Eileen Myles, Bob Perelman, Lisa Robertson, and Juliana Spahr.

Stein’s notion of “direct vision” becomes an imperative in the context of the booklet’s composition, which occurs at the cusp of war. Ultimately I read in Stein the potential for an ethical dimension to formalist readings; this places her art writing between Friedrich Nietzsche’s call for “reading as an art” in On the Genealogy of Morality and recent theorizations of how aesthetic experience might establish the organizing principles of social and political experience.

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