Gertrude Stein was certainly not known for being conventional, and this, one of her best known works is an avante-garde, experimental, or, more specifically, an example of literary "Cubism." According to Wikipedia, Picasso, at the time was painting her portrait, and was just beginning his experimentation with Cubism. To quote Wikipedia:>
Stein here reveals herself as a Cubist artist in her determination to reconfigure a one-sided perspective while revealing a subject's essence through multiple perspectives. She has additionally cited Picasso's influence on her work, stating, "I began to play with words then. I was a little obsessed by words of equal value. Picasso was painting my portrait at that time, and he and I used to talk this thing over endlessly. At the time he had just begun on Cubism". Stein likewise experiments with Cubist ideals in composition, stating, "Each part is as important as the whole"
Wikipedia's article on Cubism supplies even more insight into this art movement, and having read the book. I find this to be an accurate description:
In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.
The work is a collection of poetry (that's how Stein herself defined them), divided into three parts: Objects, Food, and
Rooms. They are composed of sentences—more, strings of words that have little to do with each other or the subject, if one is trying to perceive words in a
conventional manner. Instead, an interesting flow is created, sometimes even rhyming, often with lots of repetition of a word or phrase. In order to
appreciate works like this, one must approach it with a completely open mind, temporarily suspending everything one knows about words and their meaning, and
the way we are accustomed to use them.
I have always liked avant-garde and experimental arts. When I was in college and grad school, I did quite a bit of studies on the avante-garde movement in music, which probably reached its peak in the 60s and 70s, then turned more toward the conventional again. But what was done by composers such as John Cage had to be done—to take music to the edge, then push it over. It created a whole new way of perceiving it, and opened doors for new styles which merged unconventional techniques with the conventional. It even spilled over into rock and pop music:
Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog's eye.
Boy, you've been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down.
What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Those who knew the Beatles could point to
that supplied the inspiration for this song (my favorite Beatles song, by the way). And John and Yoko were friends with John Cage,
whose works also influenced the hated Revolution9.
And likewise, for instance, with the title of Stein's book, the words "tender" and "buttons" are opposed in meaning, not words that would be used together in an ordinary sense. Some critics have determined that it refers to a woman's nipples. On the other hand, there are those critics that called the book nonsense; "a spectacular failure, a collections of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax."
Yeah whatever. It's quite possible that all the above are correct. Or not.
My opinion on all this is that sometimes people try to over-analyze things that should be just experienced for what they
are and the sensation they create on our mind and senses, especially where abstract arts are concerned. Does it have to mean something, or can it just be?
I personally liked this book. I found the effect it had on me was to suspend perceptions of reality; a kind of temporary erasure of thought patterns, and
that is always a good thing. It clears the mind and opens it to new possibilities.
I have a few favorites that, to me, have a fascinating flow. The words roll around, creating a pleasant sensation to my brain in much the same way a palette of interesting colors would create a visual effect. Others, of course, create a more uncomfortable feeling, and that's OK, too. Here is Book from the "Objects" section. Notice the repetition and look for subtle clues on multiple interpretations:
Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.
Suppose a man a realistic expression of resolute reliability suggests pleasing itself white all white and no head does that mean soap. It does not so. It means kind wavers and little chance to beside beside rest. A plain.
Suppose ear rings, that is one way to breed, breed that. Oh chance to say, oh nice old pole. Next best and nearest a pillar. Chest not valuable, be papered.
Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green.
Please a plate, put a match to the seam and really then really then, really then it is a remark that joins many many lead games. It is a sister and sister and a flower and a flower and a dog and a colored sky colored grey and nearly that nearly that let.
Here is another from "Objects" called A Little Called Pauline. This one has lots of rhyme.
A Little Called Pauline
A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.
Here are some interesting interpretations of this poem!
If these poems intrigue you, please check out my index of abstract and experimental works, of varying levels of conventionality.
Here is Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
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