Digital Exhibition: Stein’s Portraits

As an aspiring poet, I am always seeking novel ways of expressing imagery in writing. Hence, I am excited to discover Gertrude Stein’s verbal portraits – condensed representational prose or versified texts which favor repetition over narration and chronology. Stein identifies individuals through the description of their appearance and the presentation of characteristic thoughts, behavior, and turns of phrase. I am fascinated by how the sight, sound, and choice of words influence perception and identity. In representing an individual, how are words similar to or different from images? I want to curate a digital exhibition that contrasts verbal portraits with visual portraits.

In my exhibition, I intend to feature the audio recordings of Stein reading her verbal portraits of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to draw attention to the repetitions and the musical effects in her portraits. Besides, I plan to feature the August, 1912 edition of Camera Work (a photographic journal containing Stein’s verbal portraits of Matisse and Picasso), Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia (a verbal portrait in chapbook form), and Dix Portraits (a collection of Stein’s verbal portraits with illustrations by various artists). With these three objects, I want to examine how context affects the representation of an individual. How is the experience of viewing and perceiving a painted portrait influenced by its position in relation to other paintings in a gallery? Similarly, how is the reading of a Stein verbal portrait shaped by its placement and appearance on the page? To stimulate potential answers to these questions, I plan to juxtapose Stein’s verbal portraits with visual portraits depicting her.

portrait of mabel dodge cover
Gertrude Stein. Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Gabrielle Dean.

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Camera Work (August, 1912). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by HW Wong.

Stein’s writings are known to be perplexing and at times inaccessible, so the simple title that I have chosen for my exhibition – Stein’s Portraits – will hopefully encourage the unsuspecting visitor to explore my exhibition and venture into Stein’s word puzzles. Nevertheless, the title is by no means effortless as its possessive represents the two focuses of the exhibition – portraits by her and of her. I believe Stein herself would appreciate this understated wordplay.

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