The Difficulty of the Familiar: Gertrude Stein and Still-Life

Part 1 in a series of posts on still-life and 20th-century poetry

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Picasso: Still Life (1922). Originally owned by Gertrude Stein.

Landscape painters have it easy: The astonishment of a landscape painting simply reproduces the awe that we experience in person when we take in an expanse of land and sky. But still-life confronts what I’d call “the difficulty of the familiar”: that these everyday objects—glasses, vases, plates, flowers, fruit, books—have become virtually invisible through our constant acquaintance with them, submerged in the service of use.  So viewed, the task of the still-life artist is to restore a strange splendor to that which is close at hand. This is the draw of still-life, especially for painters from late-19th century (specifically, Cézanne) and beyond.

I’m oversimplifying things, of course, but this description does help explain so many 20th century writers’ unlikely interest in still-life and its verbal equivalent. Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, for instance, were collectors of paintings by Picasso, Gris and Matisse—artists who expanded the vocabulary of the still-life.  With regard to Stein’s own writing, the titles of prose poems that make up the first third of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) read like a collection of still-life objects (with a few exceptions): “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” “A Box,” “A Plate,” “Eye Glasses,” “A Chair,” “A New Cup and Saucer,” “A Table,” “A Little Bit of a Tumbler,” “A Feather,” “Book,” etc.

Here’s “A Table”:

A TABLE.

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.

The table is the least noticed, but the most common, object in a still-life.  It’s overlooked even within discussions of this genre of the overlooked. So it’s no accident that Stein shines a light on the table, and in the process, provides a general statement regarding her interest in the genre: the table is a “whole steadiness”—the essential yet invisible ground of still-life. Stein “shake[s]” this steadiness to urge a “revision”—a re-seeing—of the “little thing[s].” As she puts it in another poem in Tender Buttons, she seeks “to see a fine substance strangely” (“A Box”).

Prose poetry is a fraught genre, but in this case, it’s the perfect choice. Like the objects of a still-life, prose (at least when contrasted with poetry) is considered a tool of utility. Convention has it that prose works best when it is “clear,” that is, when it conveys information without drawing attention to itself.  It’s supposed to function like the “looking glass” upon Stein’s table. But Stein demolishes such notions: Tender Buttons shakes up both the means by which we see—prose—and the objects of that seeing.

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