It really isn’t. Not at all. Picasso’s Stein is a masterpiece and just so much better than Valloton’s Stein or anything else in the show.
Still, it is very interesting to see them together, about which, more later.
The show as a whole has confused me; I think I like my Vallotons one at a time—when I like them at all. Also I’m finding it so difficult to write about that I’ve given up on it several times.
One of the problems is that his earliest work shows that he had a real facility for describing surfaces with a soft but precise touch: porcelain, silver, fabrics, skin. In his second phase, under the influence of Japanese prints and the Nabis, he seems to have decided that “modern” art is composed of flat areas of color and he painted this:
Arguably one of the worst paintings ever shown at The Met.
The same year, he painted Chaste Suzanne. I rather like the girl. She looks like she has just made a witty remark that has surprised her listeners. However, the painting is described as: “a wily seductress in a sequined hat who holds two balding men, trapped in the confines of a pink sofa, in thrall.”
It’s not the psychological content of the work that “disquiets” me, it’s the hideous painting of the pink sofa and the men’s suits and heads—how could the painter of Coffee Service do that to us? Plus the limiting and misogynistic descriptions—I don’t even know if they are Valloton’s words or the projections of the curators shoehorning Valloton into the theme of the show: “The Painter of Disquiet.”
Here’s another example and there are many: “A predatory female engages her submissive provincial companion; her jagged silhouette wittily contrasts his more benign contours.”
Oh, grow up!
It is also suggested that Valloton married for money and later painted dark family scenarios. Which may be why the best paintings are the landscapes—a chance to get away from the females.
According to the wall, the shadows of the trees loom ominously. Maybe Daddy is going to marry a cruel stepmother! Okay, I added that myself but because I liked this painting, I didn’t want it turned into an illustration.
This beautiful painting could not be fit into the theme and was allowed to stand without commentary.
You may be thinking that I’m not encouraging you to visit the show and that’s not true. For a painter: required viewing, because the show as a whole reveals the hideous struggle every painter goes through. It made me terribly uneasy. Maybe because I wanted to like them and oh god, because I want to make beautiful paintings myself and I’m not sure that I have yet.
What are the boundaries between illustration and painting?
Why is there a conflict between the surfaces of things and a dynamic sense of space?
Why do the inventions of one period become the stale conventions of another?
Valloton painted Stein in two weeks, painting from the top down as she described it in “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” It’s a good painting, despite the background which cannot decide if it’s a flat color or a shadowed wall. Stein is an appealing character: a big smart dyke in her signature brown corduroy schmatta.
Picasso’s Stein was the result of a long struggle. Stein said that she sat for it eighty or ninety times. Picasso painted and repainted it and after three months destroyed the face, later repainting it from memory. It is a very interesting way to paint: it is not showing, which I am afraid is what Valloton seems to be doing in most of his work. It is discovering, and in the process, destroying conventions. In addition the painting has no background—it is a whole.
There is nothing quite like it in Picasso’s other portraits except a self-portrait done in the same year, which seems to suggest that he could not turn Stein into an object or keep his distance. In Picasso’s painting, he and Stein are geniuses—as she so often claimed—and I am inclined to agree. What a woman!
John Richardson cannot conceal his dislike of Gertrude Stein in this review:
A more positive take on the Valloton show with some reservations: