All This Makes a Magnificent Asparagus: Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso
   on How to Look

By Rachel Galvin

How often have I heard Picasso say to [Gertrude Stein] when she has said something about a picture of his and then illustrated by something she was trying to do, racontez-moi cela. In other words tell me about it....They sit in two little low chairs up in his apartment studio, knee to knee and Picasso says, expliquez-moi cela. And they explain to each other.


    Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Pablo Picasso’s synthetic cubist paintings from 1912-1914 broke away from the conventions of traditional literature and painting. Confronted with these works, the reader or viewer may feel disoriented and bombarded with stimuli. The immediate impression is of fragmentation and incoherence. You may feel compelled to ask, is there anything really going on here? Why not just read Stein’s more approachable Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or Three Lives, and stick to looking at paintings from Picasso’s lyrical blue and rose periods?

Stein and Picasso’s work present revolutionary ideas about seeing. They wish to change the way that viewers and readers perceive by reinventing and simplifying their subjects and technique. This reinvention permeates all levels of the work, from the minutest detail of morphology or line, to the broadest scope of subject, meaning, and structure.

    Stein and Picasso’s innovations can be traced back to the works of Cézanne, which strongly influenced both of them. Cézanne geometricizes the subject and feel of his paintings, and works against traditional compositional notions of center. “I have not tried to reproduce nature: I have represented it,” Cézanne once said.

    In paintings such as Mont Sainte-Victoire or Road at Chantilly (pictured right), he plays shades of bright, sun-filled colors against each other to create a sensation of depth and distance, while offering the viewer a canvas free of any sense of limits or boundaries. The buildings and houses resemble vivid building blocks or cut-out shapes; juxtaposed, the forms shiver with a strange energy. Ralph Flint calls Cézanne “the Great Divide of Painting”: “In Cézanne we reach a peak of pictorial fervor and effulgence that definitely separates the long progression of European art from the newly conditioned epoch that has come to be known as Modernism.”

    Cézanne’s still lifes, especially Still Life with Apples (pictured right), Still Life with Onions and Bottle, and Table, Napkin, and Fruit (Un coin de table), evoke the same sense of geometry and boundlessness as his landscapes. Each item has equal importance, and the careful stacking of fruit, the rumpling of tablecloth and napkin, and the arrangement of elements on the canvas reveal his aim to avoid a central, pivotal point or focus. As the French poet Max Jacob wrote later in 1922, “It was the Cubist goal to arrive at the real by nonrealist means.” These notions of geometry, equality, decentralization, and limitless space pervade Picasso’s painting and Stein’s writing.

Writing and Painting without a Center

      In Lectures in America, Stein compares her prose poems in Tender Buttons to “still lives”: “If I were to include a complicated listening and talking it would be too difficult to do. That is why painters paint still lives....I tried to include color and movement...[in] a volume called Tender Buttons” (189). Written in 1912 and published two years later, Tender Buttons is arranged in three sections: “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” The prose poems range in length from a sentence to several pages and are titled with concrete noun phrases such as “A red hat,” “Milk,” and “Salad dressing and an artichoke,” similar to the titles of a painter’s still lifes (such as Picasso’s Dove with Green Peas, Guitar [La guitare], and Vase, Bowl, and Lemon). Stein said later that she had been endeavoring to write visual portraits because she found it difficult to write about auditory elements.

What makes these poems Cubist? When asked about Cubist poetry, Pierre Reverdy denied it even existed, replying, “A ridiculous term!”

     But a close look at Tender Buttons shows a decentralized multiplicity of viewpoints and a deliberate equality of constituent elements: no single verbal object within Tender Buttons, from its section headings to poem titles to individual words, has more importance than any other. Stein constructs her poems geometrically, layering and organizing language as one would line, color, and space on a canvas. “Act so that there is no use in a center. A wide action is not width,” she writes in “Rooms.” This is precisely what Stein does with structure, diction, and syntax throughout the entire collection: write without a center. She does not provide a cohesive theme, motif, or dominating element through which the rest of the prose poems are defined, and time melts into a non-linear simultaneity. The section titles offer only the suggestion of guidance to the reader.

      I will hypothesize that “Objects” concerns still-life portraits of domestic objects external to the speaker, that “Food” presents descriptions of objects the speaker ingests, and that “Rooms” deals with the space in which speaker and objects exist. But these are hypotheses; any claim to interpret these poems will always fall short because of the pervasive ambiguity and decentralization of Stein’s language. The collection “short-circuits the normal discursive process of reading,” as S.I. Lockerbie writes of the “simultanist” poetry of Apollinaire, “and requires the reader to reassemble the apparently random fragments in a new order that is independent of the flow of time and is experienced in one global act of consciousness.” Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas hints at an explanation: she writes that whereas before she had been concerned with “the insides of people, their character and what went on inside them,” at the time when she composed Tender Buttons, she “felt a desire to express the rhythm of the visible world” (119).

      This is the most difficult aspect of Tender Buttons, particularly for readers trained to anticipate conventional logic in literature. Stein does not provide context for her poems, and places no limits or boundaries on her composition. Her poems are fluid and unstable. Yet even the most opaque enumeration of objects is individualized. Flint’s remark about Cézanne relates just as well to Stein: “Because of the intensity of his feeling for form and color, Cézanne was able to subjectify the most objective material, so that his most prosaic still-life composition emerged monumental, individual.”

      The language of the poems is remarkably simple in diction and syntax, yet appears fragmented, as if more complex sentences had been purposefully broken down, truncated, or rearranged. Stein deliberately destabilizes the conventions of both prose and poetry: Tender Buttons exists in a liminal territory between the two. The reader cannot expect every sentence to have a noun and verb, as in prose syntax. Yet if a group of sentences do contain the usual syntactic elements, they may not possess traditional semantic sense or logic, as in the link between the first two sentences of “A substance in a cushion”: “The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable” (313). Lines often connect by sound and rhythm, suggesting an auditory patterning, as in the alliteration and repetition of phrases and “b,” “n,” “en,” and “a” sounds in “A chair”:

      Pick a barn, a whole barn, and bend and more slender accents than have
ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.
      Actually not aching, actually not aching, a stubborn bloom is so artificial
and even more than that, it is a spectacle, it is a binding accident, it is animosity and accentuation.

      Lines are also connected by a progression in visual elements. “It is her eyes and mind that are active and important and concerned in choosing [words],” Stein writes in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (75). Frequently the reader must read imaginatively to stay with Stein’s jumps, such as when she moves from round, closed shapes, through materials, and back to round, closed shapes in “A substance in a cushion”:

      A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clear that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them. (314-315)

      In this passage, Stein discusses internal human changes that are not reflected by observable external changes. She compares a changed person to a covered cushion or an oyster holding a pearl inside; though the pearl is not mentioned, it is alluded to by the opposition of container/contained.

In an interview with Robert Bartlett Haas, Stein says that her discussions with Picasso affected her ideas about writing: “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 this time he had just begun on cubism”

(cited in Murphy 140; italics are mine). Some of the poems in Tender Buttons read like descriptions of paintings, such as the third paragraph of “A long dress.” With a painterly eye, Stein writes of color, shade, and line: “Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it” (318).

      Stein’s prose poems strongly resemble Picasso’s synthetic cubist portraits and still lifes of the same period (1912-1914). His use of geometry, equality, decentralization, and boundless space have a disorienting effect on the viewer, similar to the effect produced by Tender Buttons. Picasso’s rearrangement and reinterpretation of planes and basic geometric shapes are, like Stein’s, indebted to Cézanne’s innovations in landscape and still life. Picasso’s Bather (pictured right) appears to be an extension of Cézanne’s ideas in Mont Sainte-Victoire, projected onto the human form. Although the Bather’s face is less distorted than that of, say, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahweiller, the body is composed of spheres, cones, and ellipses: spherical bunches of hair, conical and half-spherical shoulders, spherical breasts, abdomen, and buttocks. The precise casting of human anatomy in geometric terms seems less of a reduction—which would imply a lack of something essential—than a simplification and clarification of the way the human body is put together. The same is true of Stein’s writing: the underlying machinery is laid bare, exposing its foundational elements.

      In his series of nearly monochrome synthetic cubist paintings, such as Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahweiller, Dove with Green Peas, and Accordionist, Picasso slices up the image he perceives and juxtaposes the fragments to suggest three-dimensionality: all perspectives are offered at once. The fragmenting and rearranging of a portrait is disconcerting. When I look at Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahweiller (pictured right), I hunt for recognizable details and latch onto them, struggling to “make sense” of the painting. The subject, foreground, and background seem to oscillate on the same plane. One element pops out, then another, undermining a traditional, fixed perspective. My eye jumps to elements such as Kahweiller’s hands and locks of hair, the dove’s claw, five peas, and the word CAFÉ, which become emblematic keys to the composition. In each of these paintings, the entire canvas is sectioned with lines and graduated shades of a single color, giving the sensation that the gaze of the painter has bestowed each element with the same importance. Nothing is privileged; each element receives the same fragmenting treatment and the same emphasis. Picasso equalizes the subject, background, foreground, and role of the canvas in the way Stein does by refusing to value one layer of language or image over another.

      This technique also succeeds in decentralizing the composition. No longer is there a coherent force around which the whole painting is arranged. Picasso reworks the concept of the still life in Dove with Green Peas the way Stein revises the idea of the poem in Tender Buttons: the artist shatters the audience’s expectations by refusing to give one element emphasis or to provide a cohesive center around which and through which the rest may be interpreted. Instead of a bowl of fruit or a dove with green peas that acts as the main focus of the composition and commands my gaze, here the lines, triangles, and squares of the composition make my eye hesitate. I am unsure if the dove or the shapes are more important, or even if I am actually supposed to think one is more important at all. I can’t find an easy point of entry into the painting, so I am left wondering about my assumption that a still life has, by definition, an obvious point of entry.

      This also creates a sense of boundless space on the canvas. There is no frame of reference and there are no boundaries circumscribing the images or the shapes. The lines seem to run off the edges of the canvas; the image isn’t framed in a conventional way or set off from the background at all; and the word CAFÉ floats in the upper right-hand corner, an arrow protruding from the second line of the letter “E.” It is unclear whether the word CAFÉ is intended to tell me something about the location of the dove with green peas and create a background mood, or simply to play an equal role with the images and shapes in the painting. The small arrow, a symbol of direction, gives no helpful indication, thereby subverting its conventional meaning. The word CAFÉ itself has no context and seems to provide only tentative, peripheral context to the content of the painting. The painting offers a territory open to boundless interpretation and boundless entry into the canvas’s field.

Suggestions of Silence

      Picasso and Stein’s coup de grâce is that they were able to fashion a new form to fit their vision. That is, their ideas about meaning, color, texture, composition, and order are expressed by the style of their pieces as well as by explicit statement. At times Stein writes lines in Tender Buttons that ring like prescriptions for Picasso’s painting and her own writing. In “Salad dressing and an artichoke,” she writes of the relation between part and whole, inverting the relationship between the two and suggesting that a concrete object may spring from an empty space: “A whole is inside a part, a part does go away, a hole is red leaf” (344). This notion, which applies to visual art as well as writing, appears later on in “Rooms,” in terms of silence:

      The reason that nothing is hidden is that there is no suggestion of
silence....No eye glasses are rotten, no window is useless and yet if air will not
come in there is a speech ready, there always is and there is no dimness, not a bit
of it.
      All along the tendency to deplore the absence of more has not been
      A silence is not indicated by any motion, less is indicated by a motion,
more is not indicated, it is enthralled.

      I read this passage as a meditation on the opposition of silence and words, or presence and absence. A “suggestion of silence” or “air” allows hidden meanings to exist where otherwise there would be speech. Stein refers to eyeglasses and windows, evoking images of sight and the field of vision represented by a canvas or page. The philosophical assertion, “A silence is not indicated by any motion, less is indicated by a motion,” implies the fertility of absence or empty space.

      Picasso’s painting with pasted paper and newspaper, Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass demonstrates the same principles of definition through absence or silence. The canvas is “silent” about the right side of the guitar, as well as its face, which is composed of the textured wallpaper behind it. By layering disparate materials (unrelated to the materials a guitar is made of) in the shape of a common, recognizable object, Picasso allows the space to be as evocative as the presence. This painting, as well as the whole of Tender Buttons, would answer Stein’s question “does silence choke speech or does it not” (349) with a resounding no. Silence, their work says, is as expressive as speech.

      Stein’s “A table” is a meta-poem addressing her technique. She illustrates her approach in terms of common objects, drawing an unusual comparison between the “steadiness” of a table and the reflective surface and tall dimensions of a looking glass. I interpret this as a description of her project to bring out the mirror-like quality of words that might be seen as wooden. Her mention of “change,” “revision,” and “shake” in conjunction with sturdy objects parallels her disruption of syntax in this passage, as well as Picasso’s disruption of the continuous line in synthetic cubism:

              A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. Is it likely
     that a change.
              A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table
means necessary places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean
that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.

      Perhaps the most overt meta-poem or manifesto regarding her technique appears in the last passage of “Rooms.” Stein deals with the topic of artistic intent, color, composition, and still lifes (represented by “asparagus,” similar to Picasso’s lemons, onions, and bottles) with statements that could accompany an exhibition of Picasso’s synthetic cubist work:

      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. (355)

The intent of the artist who purposefully does things “wrong,” Stein says, makes a “magnificent asparagus” or picture. Stein opens her poem up further with the image of the fountain: not only do “care” and “wrong” images make a magnificent picture, but they also create something entirely unexpected, beautiful, and full of possibility.

How to Look

      Stein and Picasso’s work taps into realism in its most fundamental form. Their approach remains representational, despite the general misconception that it is not. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes about how people misunderstand Picasso’s intentions: “When people said that the few cubes in the landscapes looked like nothing but cubes, Gertrude Stein would laugh and say, if you had objected to these landscapes as being too realistic there would be some point in your objection” (90).

      Picasso’s synthetic cubism and Stein’s language in Tender Buttons unearth an essential sub-strata of vision and offer it to the audience, decorticated and divested of its super-strata of obscuring conventions. At first glance, this technique creates ambiguity, defies the logic of traditional representative painting and literature, and may cause the viewer to feel disoriented. Apart from the title and announced genre of the piece, there are no conventional clues about how to read or how to see the work. This is where both Stein and Picasso are saying just read or just look: they give us the very basic mechanisms that prompt their vision and allow us to assemble it ourselves. I don’t mean that leave it entirely up to us to provide meaning—that would eradicate the deliberate, evocative power of their constructions. However, I do believe their work demands something of their audience, which anticipates a later movement in post-modernism: both Stein and Picasso demand that we be willing to relinquish our preconceptions about how to read meaning, and to interact with the work of art that confronts us.


Note: Cézanne and Picasso’s paintings are from http://www.artchive.com/artchive.

Cézanne, Paul. Mount Sainte-Victoire, 1885-1887. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 1/8 in.
      The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
----------. Road at Chantilly, 1888. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 25 5/8 in. Collection Mr. and
      Mrs. William A. M. Burden, New York.
----------. Still Life with Apples,1890-1894. Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in. Private
      Collection, USA.
----------. Still Life with Onions and Bottle,1895-1900. Oil on canvas, 26 x 31 7/8 in.
      The Louvre, Paris. ----------. Table, Napkin, and Fruit (Un coin de table),1895-1900. Oil on canvas,
      47 x 56 cm. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.
Lockerbie, S.I., introduction. Calligrammes : Poems of Peace and War by Guillaume
       Apollinaire. University of California Press: Santa Barbara, 2004.
Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from
      Wilde to Ashbery. The University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 1992.
Picasso, Pablo. Accordionist, Ceret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas, 130 x 89.5 cm.
      Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
----------. Bather, Paris, winter-spring 1909. Oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm.
      Collection Mrs. Bertram Smith, New York.
----------. Dove with Green Peas (Le pigeon aux petit pois), Paris, spring 1912. Oil on
      canvas, 65 x 54 cm. Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
----------. Guitar (La guitare), Ceret, after March 31, 1913. Papiers collés, charcoal, India
      ink and chalk on paper, 66.4 x 49.6 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New
----------. Vase, Bowl, and Lemon, Paris, summer 1907. Oil on panel, 62 x 48 cm. Galerie
      Beyeler, Basel. ----------. Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahweiller, Paris, autumn-winter 1910. Oil on canvas,
      100.6 x 72.8 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Stein, Gertrude. Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Vintage Books Edition: New York,
----------. “Tender Buttons,” Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903-1932. The Library of
      America: New York, 1998. ----------. Lectures in America. Random House: New York, 1935.


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