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.

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.


Posters American Style

The digital exhibition Posters American Style provides a historical overview of 20th-century graphic images and their designers in the context of events, commercial endeavors, movements, and patriotism. The posters are all designed in the U.S. and come from private and public collections across the country. This digital exhibition is not marked with a date, but a Google search reveals that a coffee-table catalog of the same name was published in March, 1998. Curated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum to complement the Museum’s touring physical exhibition of the same name, this digital exhibition aims to highlight the similarities between the Internet and poster design:

Today, as web site designers seek vibrant graphic images and powerful, terse captions to appeal to mass audiences, the fundamental lessons of poster design seem more contemporary than ever. (Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

This exhibition can be divided into four parts, namely the welcome page, homepage, key section pages, and poster collection:

  • The welcome page contains a postcard-like image with the names of the exhibition and the Museum, a printer’s color bar, and a collage with the I Want You Uncle Sam poster and the poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. At the bottom are the logo of the Museum and two links: one to a list of the Museum’s other online exhibitions and another to the homepage of the Museum’s website. Clicking on the postcard-like image leads to the homepage.
  • The homepage functions as a table of contents. It has a navigation menu at the top and a site index below, both of which contain links to the four key sections: Introduction, The Posters, The Process, and The Impact. The navigation menu and site index also include links to the subsections of The Posters, which contain the bulk of the exhibition. The link to the Credits and Acknowledgements is only available on the site index.
“Homepage.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed April 10, 2015.
  • Each of the key section pages has a similar layout; a search feature and links to the other key sections are placed on the header. The exhibition’s name on the header links back to the homepage whereas the Museum’s name links to the Museum’s website. There are links to the subsection pages on the left of the screen. Some of the key section pages contain dynamic “exhibits.” For example, The Process has an animated GIF of an offset press while The Impact has audio files of historical milestones such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream. However, the search feature and audio files no longer function, probably due to the outdated software that powers the exhibition.
“Key Section Page.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed April 10, 2015.
  • The posters in the poster collection can be viewed one at a time. Information for each poster includes artist’s name and year of birth, client, printing technique, dimensions, and collection to which the poster belongs. The artist’s biography appears at the bottom of the page. Hovering the mouse over some posters results in the appearance of boxes that, when clicked, lead to enlarged details. An image index lists all 137 posters, divided into four categories examining the subject matters of posters: 1) leisure activities including film, sports, circuses, and cultural events, 2) consumer goods, 3) social issues and advocacy, and 4) war propaganda and patriotism.
“Poster Collection.” Posters American Style, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed May 6, 2015.

The most prominent feature of this digital exhibition is its link accessibility. Almost every page contains various links placed in the header, sidebar, content, and site index. This allows the visitor to access the different exhibition parts at almost any point of a particular page, reducing unnecessary scrolling and tedious navigation from one page to another. However, the multitude of links – specifically links that lead to the same destination page – falsely conveys the existence of more pages than there actually are. This results in potential confusion and undermines the overarching linear structure of the content. Furthermore, in certain key sections such as The Process, there are links to subsections that are not listed on the homepage. The visitor will not be aware of these “hidden” subsections unless the visitor thoroughly explores the digital exhibition.

While the multitude of links reflects the abundance and range of American posters, it contradicts the leanness and conciseness of poster design. Ironically, Posters American Style lacks the fundamental lessons of poster design.

Gertrude Stein: Time and Place in “The Autobiography”

As I wait for the bus on the sidewalk outside the Queen Anne-style building of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, I picture Gertrude Stein walking by that very spot to her research laboratory more than a century ago. Maybe a speck of dust that grazed her shoes in 1901 is now stuck to mine. I am fascinated by how time and place intersect. A building may be in ruins and a name may change with the passage of time, but the physical sites remain. Reading about a particular place in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (the non-sequential autobiography of Gertrude Stein disguised as that of her lifetime companion), I imagine what the characters might have experienced and seen at a specific moment in history. How are the places similar or different today? Here, I have selected archival photographs of places in which significant events of the autobiography occurred:

The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the Ohio River forms in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 1890. From Getty Images. Photograph by Fotosearch.

1874, West Allegheny (Pittsburgh), PA – Stein was born.


San Francisco
Part of an eleven-frame panorama of San Francisco, California, 1877. From Getty Images. Photograph by Eadweard Muybridge.

1877, San Francisco, CA – Toklas was born.


Radcliffe College
View of Radcliffe Yard, 1900-1908. From the Radcliffe Archives.

1893, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA – Stein met William James and wrote her first published work, which appeared in the Harvard Psychological Review and featured “experiments in automatic writing” later developed in Three Lives and Making of Americans.


Johns Hopkins
Postcard of Johns Hopkins Hospital, c. 1900. From the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. Public Domain.

1900-1902, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore, MD – Stein enrolled at the Medical School, but left after two years without a degree.


Eiffel Tower as viewed from a balloon, c. 1900. From Getty Images. Photograph by Buyenlarge.

1903, Paris, France – Stein and her brother moved into the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Between 1905 and 1906, Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in ninety sittings. Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907.


Petite Palais
Le Petit Palais in Paris, c. 1898. From Getty Images. Photograph by Roger Viollet.

1905, Le Petit Palais, Paris, France – Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau was exhibited at the inaugural autumn salon. Stein purchased the painting and soon became an important collector of Matisse’s works.


London WW1
London crowds in the street on the day WWI was declared, August 4, 1914. From the Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

1914, London, England – Hoping to persuade an English publisher to publish Stein’s work, Stein and Toklas travelled to London in July. They ended up staying in the English countryside with Dr. Alfred Whitehead and his family for six weeks due to the outbreak of World War I.


Perpignan WW1
View of the Castillet in Perpignan, c. 1900. From Getty Images.

1916, Perpignan, France – Stein and Toklas, volunteering for the American Fund for French Wounded, drove supplies to French hospitals near the Spanish frontier.

Dashiell Hammett: Suspense in Understatement

photo (1)
Dashiell Hammett, $106,000 Blood Money (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, 1943). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by H. Wong.

A white envelope encircled by a stark, ominous shadow rests on a vermillion background. On the envelope, a precise letterpress typeface – reminiscent of newspaper headlines – spells out “BLOOD MONEY.” Above it, the postage-ink-red outlines of money sacks peek out from behind a commanding black dollar sign. The numbers that follow on the right are faded like the texture of stamped lettering or smoke. The words “Bestseller Mystery,” the author’s name, and a blurb about him are in a lurid, serpentine gothic-script typeface. Below the envelope are the delicate silhouettes of a gun and a masquerade mask. This 1943 cover of Dashiell Hammett’s $106,000 Blood Money conveys greed, deception, and murder.

However, unlike the formulaic pulp fiction cover with garish colors, a sensational scene, and a half-clothed damsel-in-distress, this one is a studied understatement. There are only three colors – black, white, and red. The center alignment of the text and images, along with the regularity of the rectangular envelope, guides the eye methodically from top to bottom. Although lacking in energy and movement, the text and images confined within the definiteness of symmetry evoke apprehension and suspense. I believe the tense restraint of the cover characterizes Hammett’s writing:


My hands were in my overcoat pockets—one holding the flashlight, the other my gun.

I pushed the muzzle of the pocketed gun toward the man—pulled the trigger.

The shot ruined seventy-five dollars’ worth of overcoat for me. But it took the man away from my neck.


Hammett’s description of a killing made by the protagonist is matter-of-fact and efficient. The protagonist aims and kills mechanically, expending more emotion on his ruined overcoat than on the death of his enemy. Hammett does not bat an eye, and neither does his protagonist who is just going through another day on the job. There is no heroic bravado. The tension simmers and, without a release, I am left chewing my nails through the action. A vivid and dramatic cover would contradict Hammett’s restraint and the protagonist’s nonchalance. While I admittedly would have preferred a cover with a provocative femme fatale, I concede that this cover expresses the understated suspense of the story.

Flows, Ripples, and Tumbles

I usually leaf through an anthology in search of engaging titles or passages. Reading an anthology in chronological order is oppressive. I do not enjoy plodding through page after page of dullness in the hope of eventually rewarding my patience with a compelling line. Nevertheless, from the exercise of arranging my portfolio for my writing workshop, I have discovered that the order of works in an anthology is, on most occasions, not arbitrary. A thoughtful arrangement can flow, suggesting connections between the anthologized works and quietly reminding the reader of the anthology’s overarching theme. It can also ripple and tumble to provoke the reader with incongruous and surprising parallels.

Of course, I did not read A Mencken Chrestomathy in chronological order. The book is divided into sections, each containing articles on subjects ranging from high culture and politics to everyday drudgery. Sections with important titles such as Odd Fish, Quackery, and Buffooneries meant that I had to explore them first. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the order in which the sections appear. The cover claims that this book represents H.L. Mencken’s “own selection of his choicest writings.” A flamboyant writer and editor like Mencken would definitely have a less-than-ordinary perspective of his own works. No one would know for certain why he chose to arrange his works the way it appears in the book, but it is certainly fascinating and instructive to take a guess.

H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Left, First Edition (New York: Knopf, 1949); Right (New York: Vintage Books, 1982). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by H. Wong.

In my attempt to make sense of Mencken’s arrangement, I have grouped the sections into eight categories:

Manners: Homo Sapiens ǀ Types of Men ǀ Women

Values: Religion ǀ Morals ǀ Crime and Punishment ǀ Death

The State: Government ǀ Democracy ǀ Americans ǀ The South ǀ History

Personalities: Statesmen ǀ American Immortals ǀ Odd Fish

Knowledge: Economics ǀ Pedagogy ǀ Psychology ǀ Science ǀ Quackery ǀ The Human Body

Reflection: Utopian Flights ǀ Souvenirs of a Journalist ǀ Criticism

The Arts: Literature ǀ Literati ǀ Music ǀ The Lesser Arts

Wisdom: Buffooneries ǀ Sententiæ ǀ Appendix

I believe Manners Values, Knowledge Reflection, and The Arts Wisdom are associative pairings whereas ValuesThe StatePersonalitiesKnowledge is a discordant, challenging sequence. Reading the book chronologically, the reader 1) begins with a logical flow of thought, 2) encounters novelty and turbulence, and 3) ends with a sensible takeaway. Interestingly, this evokes the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution of the narrative arc. Mencken’s arrangement – much like his provocative writing – flows, ripples, and tumbles.

If I had diligently read the book in the correct order (or at least leaf through it chronologically), chances are I would have learnt to call a specialist in the machination of supply and demand an odd fish.