If your acquaintance with the Stein family is limited to avant-garde expatriate writer Gertrude, perhaps by way of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris or her (in)famous declaration on roses, Elizabeth Lennard’s 2011 documentary The Stein Family, The Making of Modern Art, now available on DVD, will come as something of an eye opener. While Lennard’s film gives the larger than life Gertrude her just share of attention, this is in fact a study of the whole family, her older brother Michael, his wife Sarah and her younger brother Leo and their discovery and championship of the cause of modern art.
Settling in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century supported by a fortune built in San Francisco’s transportation industry by their father and enlarged by Michael, Gertrude and Leo were among the earliest to recognize the vibrant power of the revolutionary artists at work around them. They were among the first to befriend and collect some of the artists—Matisse, Picasso–that were to become the giants of the century. When Sarah and Michael joined them in Paris a few years later, they too became avid collectors.
Lennard’s film, while including some biographical background, is not a biography. It limits itself to the quartet’s role in the making the world safe for modernity. Clearly some attention must be paid to Gertrude’s writing, and attention is paid. Clearly some attention must be paid to Alice B. Toklas, and it too is paid, but if you’re looking for biography or literary criticism, you won’t find it here. On the other hand if you’re looking for some insight into how the audience for modern art, especially painting, was developed you’ve come to the right place.
Using the conventional talking heads, academics, historians and critics, Lennard explains how the various members of the family supported the artists they admired, collected and used their apartments as showcases their work. She concerns herself with things like the development of Leo’s aesthetic through his acquaintance with the critic Bernard Berenson, Michael’s special relation to Matisse, and Gertrude’s close friendship with Picasso. She focuses on the works of art presenting a veritable cornucopia of illustrations from the family’s collections.
At 53 minutes in length the film makes its points with dispatch and avoids tedium. The DVD includes an English version and one in French. The English version uses subtitles for the many French speaking talking heads. There are no other extras on the DVD, but there is a reading of the (in)famous rose passage from “Sacred Emily” along with the closing credits.
An exhibit of some 200 works from the Stein Collection jointly organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris has been on display beginning in San Francisco in May of 2011 before moving to Paris. The collection includes masterpieces from around the world like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude which she left to the Metropolitan, Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” which is prominently featured in the film, and his “Blue Nude.” The collection is currently on display at the Met through June.