Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso: L’invention du langage (The Invention of Language)

Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, 1922 Image positive obtenue par inversion des valeurs de la numérisation du négatif original (tirage d’exposition), négatif original : 9 × 12 cm Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2023 © Succession Picasso 2023.

Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso: L’invention du langage (The Invention of Language) 

Musée du Luxembourg

19 rue Vaugirard 75006 Paris

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL September 28, 2023

“America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”

~ Gertrude Stein, An American and France (1936)

Marking the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death, the Musée du Luxembourg is presenting an elegant tour-de-force exhibition that tells a story of his extraordinary friendship with American-in-Paris writer, Modernist aesthete and lesbian icon, Gertrude Stein. Although Picasso could not read Stein’s experimental writings and poetry, as they were in English, the L’invention du langage (The Invention of Language) exhibition convincingly traces their bohemian intellectual working relationship: one influenced by their mutual position as foreigners in France—with a basic (if budding) command of the French language—and their marginal status within Parisian society. I understand these very qualities as the basis of their avant-garde artistic freedom. 

The show moves the mind from Montparnasse to Black Mountain College to New York City. Though language here is understood as an uncontrollable machine for making meaning, the language at issue is not only of the spoken sort—but rather a compositional-formal language (of Cubism in Picasso’s case and of noun-based reductive and repetitious language variables in Stein’s) that greatly influenced radical 20th-century artists. This show demonstrates how that happened and is still happening. 

The Picasso-Stein friendship crystallized around their respective work in Cubism and the eccentric literary avant-garde. And, indeed, the joint Picasso-Stein posterity is remarkable, but, truth be told, Marcel Duchamp’s idea-based work and Gertrude Stein’s language-based work makes for the stronger bond that built the bridge from Cubist/Dada France to the remarkable American conceptual-minimalism moment in the 1970s. Repetition, found object re-contextualizing, rehashing, insistence (with or without subtle differences): these conditions of displacement of meaning in Duchamp’s art and Stein’s writing more strongly resonated into the second half of the 20th century than Cubism. I sensed that the curators rather knew this as they tipped their hard hat early on by feathering in Marcel Duchamp’s Fac-similés des Rotoreliefs nos 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12 1-Corolles, 3-Lanterne chinoise, 6-Escargot, 8-Cerceaux, 10-Cage, 12-Spirale blanche. But that’s another show to be circled back to.

Three Pablo Picasso paintings and Marcel Duchamp’s Fac-similés des Rotoreliefs nos 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12 1-Corolles, 3-Lanterne chinoise, 6-Escargot, 8-Cerceaux, 10-Cage, 12-Spirale blanche 2010 Papier collé sur Plexiglas, D. 20 cm chacun Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Didier Plowy pour la Rmn-GP scénographie Studio Matters, 2023

“And identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography 

Stein was a Jewish-American immigrant and homosexual who settled in Paris in 1903 at her brother Leo’s flat at 27, rue de Fleurus in Montparnasse (literally around the corner from where I live, and very near Musée du Luxembourg) two years after the arrival of Picasso in 1901. In 1910 Stein’s lover, Alice B. Toklas, would move into rue de Fleurus and brother Leo, eventually out. 

Stein met Picasso in 1905 when he was 24 and she 31, and began sitting long hours for what became Picasso’s famous—and ever wonderful—Gertrude Stein (1905-6) portrait that she bequeathed in 1946 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But stylistically, more than Picasso, Stein’s great influence was American philosopher/psychologist William James; particularly his conception of insistence as an act of cognition. Stein’s style of patiently weighing of all the components of any situation can be traced to James.   

“Is it so a noise to be is it a least remain to rest, is it a so old say to be, is it a leading are been. Is it so, is it so, is it so, is it so is it so is it so.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

Paul Cézanne, Pommes et biscuits 1880 huile sur toile 45 × 55 cm Paris, musée de l’Orangerie, collection Walter-Guillaume, achat en 1959 © Rmn - Grand Palais (musée de l’Orangerie) / Franck Raux


Pablo Picasso, Femme aux mains jointes (étude pour Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) Paris, printemps 1907 huile sur toile 90,5 × 71,5 cm Musée national Picasso‑Paris, dation Pablo Picasso en 1979 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2023


Pablo Picasso Guitare Paris, décembre 1912 carton découpé, papier collé, toile, ficelle et crayon 21 ×14 × 7,5 cm Musée Picasso, Paris, dation Pablo Picasso en 1979 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Adrien Didierjean © Succession Picasso 2023

The exhibition begins with a section called the “Paris Moment” that begins at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard when Leo and Gertrude Stein discovered the paintings of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Wonderful examples of all three start the show rolling (plus George Braque and Juan Gris)—especially Cézanne’s Pommes et biscuits and Picasso’s Femme aux mains jointes (a study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). This along with vitrines rich in letters and books and drawings. Playing above is a looped audio track with Stein’s voice reading from her If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso text, where she humorously ties Picasso to Napoleon. This all makes for some splendid combinational delight.

John Cage Three Songs 1932-1933 Enregistrement sonore, 3’ Textes : Gertrude Stein (« Twenty Years After », « If It Was To Be », « At East And Ingredients ») / Musique : John Cage / Interprétation : Natalia Pschenitschnikova et Alexei Lubimov Used by arrangement with ECM Records, Licence Courtesy Peters Edition Limited

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

~Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily (1913) 

The next bigger section is announced with another looped audio track: that of John Cage’s Three Songs (1932-1933) that includes the Twenty Years After and If It Was To Be and At East And Ingredients texts by Stein as interpreted by Natalia Pschenitschnikova and Alexei Lubimov.  

The American posterity of the Stein-Picasso dialogue forms the second part of the exhibition—the “American Moment”—with many emblematic works from the 1970s based on Stein’s odd—often nuanced repetitive—writing that informed many musical, artistic and theatrical experimentations within Neo-Dada and Fluxus. Minimal Art, in turn, centered on Stein’s idea of repetitive language now mixed with geometric forms—like endless circles (again more Duchamp Rotoreliefs than Picasso Guitare—however marvelous it is). The continuous threads pulled here are the many affinities with repetition—made obvious and obviously enthralling with the repetitive minimal music of Philip Glass in contact with the post-modern dance of Lucinda Childs. 

“Play, play every day, play and play and play away, and then play the play the play you played today, the play you play every day, play it and play it.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Play (1909) 

Curators, Cécile Debray, director of the Musée Picasso, and art historian Assia Quesnel, have created an ambitious and demanding and rewarding exhibition in this climax section by comparing sculpture and paintings and texts and dance (videos). Doing so, they show how the analytical decomposition of motifs—the practice of collage—of fragmentation and repetition—and the iconography of everyday life—are at the heart of the move Modernism made to New York; transforming it into Post-Modernism. In this respect this section of the show includes (most importantly) John Cage; as well as Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth, Roni Horn, Hanne Darboven, Steve Reich, Bob Wilson, Gary Hill, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Sol LeWitt, Ray Johnson, James Lee Byars, Andy Warhol and Philip Glass. Through this list of participating artists, it is clear just how strongly Stein contributed to the process of the circular-prone textualization of art in 60s-70s New York City.    

“A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

Stein herself once said that she was alone at the time in understanding Picasso because she was “expressing the same thing in literature.” Though hardly the same thing as Cubism (her work is not nearly as multi-spatial) their work in different ways did become important to the Neo-Dada New York underground art scene of the 50s and 60s. Specifically relevant here are Living Theater and Fluxus and the conceptual-minimal movement that emerged out of and around Fluxus, John Cage and La Monte Young. This section of the show demonstrates just how convincingly Stein’s experimental (and much ridiculed) verse freed from convention certain American theatrical, musical, choreographic and visual arts scenes—thanks in particular to the mediation of Cage. Time slows down here as I pleasurably explored various Cage-like conceptual, performative and critical approaches to art, poetry, music and theatre. 

But my feeling is that the hard-headed sheer insistence in Stein’s writing is what overlaps most tightly with the conceptual-minimalist generation. This is demonstrated most clearly—and enjoyably—in the audio visual part of the show that presents films of dance. Many good minutes were spent here. Highlights for me included Yvonne Rainer’s Three Seascapes (1962)—as performed by Patricia Hoffbauer at Dia Beacon in 2012. The second movement is the best, as she dances to the noise music of La Monte Young’s 89 VI 8C. 1:42-1:52 AM Paris Encore from Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, Etc. (1960). 

Merce Cunningham’s dance Minutiae (1954)—with the music of John Cage and set by Robert Rauschenberg as performed in 1977—is riveting and Trisha Brown’s Accumulation (1971) performed in 1975 is also outstanding. As is Lucinda Childs’s Calico Mingling (1973)—performed outdoors at Fordham University. But Marie‑Hélène Rebois’s magnificent movie about Lucinda Childs’s Dance (1979)—with the mesmerizing minimal music of Philip Glass and set by Sol LeWitt—takes the cake. 

Through Stein we can perceive here how a text or artwork can be considered as a unified whole that denies the conventional figure/ground separation of which no part is worth more than any another.

The next gallery in this section returns to the art object: featuring iconic artists Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Kosuth. Odder, smaller works caught my eye here, like James Lee Byars’s One Page Book on Gertrude Stein (1970), on loan from The Museum of Modern Art Archives, as it is tremendous in it miniaturized scale. Also I was very attracted to Carl Andre’s typewriter concrete poetry work Short Words (1963), placed in front of Andre’s sculpture Silver Ribbon (2002)—a thin metal sheet wound in a spiral on the floor. This combo again makes the Stein-Duchamp Rotoreliefs point clear: Cubism’s multiple-simultaneous perspective is absent here. It is all Stein time. Indeed, Andre recognized in Stein a major reference, even stating that “If [Stein] had been a man, she would have been considered the greatest writer 20th century American. [But] of course, if she had been a man, she would not have been the great writer that she is.”

Carl Andre, Short Words 1963 typewritten in black ink, one of a set of four pages 27,6 × 21,3 cm New York, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery © Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York © ADAGP, Paris 2023 

In Andre’s Short Words, words, numbers and punctuation marks are condensed and reduced to what is strictly necessary to organize them out of all common grammar into a visual—sculptural-like—configuration. Here we can see how Andre’s activity as a concrete poet is inseparable from that of a sculptor, where—like the reconfigured words in the page—he places found industrial materials on the ground as modular entities that he assembles, restructures and moves, depending on the space of a location. 

Glenn Ligon Study for Negro Sunshine (#139, #140, #141, #142, #143, #144, #145, #146, #147) 2023 bâton de peinture à l’huile, poussière de charbon et gesso sur papier 30,5 × 22,9 cm chacune © Photo Jiayun Deng / © Glenn Ligon; courtesy of the artist, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

“There are many that I know and they know it. They are all of them repeating and I hear it. I love it and I tell it. I love it and now I will write it. This is now a history of my love of it. I hear it and I love it and I write it. They repeat it. They live it and I see it and I hear it. They live it and I hear it and I see it and I love it and now and always I will write it. There are many kinds of men and women and I know it. They repeat it and I hear it and I love it. This is now a history of the way they do it. This is now a history of the way I love it.”

~Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

The show ends in the social-critical black with Glenn Ligon’s impressive Study for Negro Sunshine (2023) and Ellen Gallagher’s enormous Dance You Monster diptych (2000)—which belongs to her Black Paintings series of monochrome paintings begun in 1998. Covered with several layers of paper and rubber material, its deep black, reflective surface is intended to evoke something of the slave trade of blacks conducted under colonization and blackface minstrel show of the racist America that Stein left behind. 

Then, with a final light touch, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s neo-conceptual photo Untitled (Alice B. Toklas’ and Gertrude Stein’s Grave, Paris) (1992) left me feeling full and sad and wanting more.

Anonymous, Gertrude Stein in the Jardins du Luxembourg (vers 1905) épreuve gélatino-argentique (tirage d’exposition) New Haven, Yale University Library, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers © Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

“A little sign of an entrance is the one that made it alike. If it were smaller it was not alike and it was so much smaller that a table was bigger. A table was much bigger, very much bigger. Changing that made nothing bigger, it did not make anything bigger littler, it did not hinder wood from not being used as leather. And this was so charming. Harmony is so essential. Is there pleasure when there is a passage, there is when every room is open. Every room is open when there are not four, there were there and surely there were four, there were two together. There is no resemblance.”

~ Gertrude Stein, extract from Tender Buttons: Objects – Food – Rooms 

On view September 13, 2023 through January 28, 2024. WM  

Joseph Nechvatal


Joseph Nechvatal is an American transdisciplinary artist/painter currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP has been recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even is being book published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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