Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three years among superlatives

Full title: Paris Portraits. Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle

AuthorHarriet Lane Levy
Genre: Non fiction, memoir
Attributes: 103 p, hard cover

Publisher: Heyday (2011)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Between 1907 and 1910, Harriet Lane Levy spent three of the most incredible years in Paris, surrounded by the greatest names in art and literature at the time. She’d left San Francisco along with Alice B. Tolkas, the woman who later would become the closest friend, confidante, and lover of Gertrude Stein.
From the experience of having lived with the Steins and their friends, protégés, and sometimes enemies came out this book full of superlatives. Paris Portraits is about a sweet age of laissez-faire, at the turn of the twentieth century, when women offered their minds to the gods of leisure, and men were consumed with the intensity of art. This was a world where lines of force were drawn only by the strongest, most unbending spirits, while the weak trailed behind, drenched in their own insignificance and maybe lack of luck.
What really stand out in this book are the portraits of the Stein family. We find, for instance, that the Steins were somewhat divided between Picasso and Matisse, Leo and Gertrude having opted for the former, while Sarah had embraced the latter wholehartedly. It is through the passionate defense of these two artists that we come to realize how strong the personalities of these people were: so strong, they crushed everything under the weight of their convictions. This explains why, for instance,
“Sarah’s defense of Matisse as he grew in prestige was not only a defense of Matisse but a defense of the ramparts of her own judgment and authority.”
To gauge the weight of this tiny book one needs to take a look at Harriet Lane Levy’s entourage while in Paris. There are pages upon pages where she speaks of eating and drinking with people who have made history. For instance, a dinner in Montmartre, at the house of Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau, becomes a unique chance of painting a tableau of the greats through their gestures and words.
“Everybody sat down at the table. Fernande [mistress of Picasso, himself present at the table] commanded and we found our chairs. Leo [Stein] drew his violin from its case. Braque placed his accordion before him. Marie Laurencin took a seat beside Apollinaire, who held a manuscript in his hand. At the head of the table, in the chair of honor, raised high on a platform, Rousseau set, smiling at the faces before him.”
Gertrude Stein looms like a constant threat throughout the book. So that Levy
rarely gathers her own forces to say things like this about her. Which, in truth,
are not things about Gertrude but rather about those who lived in her shadow.
There are many other scenes like this in the book, revealing Levy constantly on the edge, always fascinated by the people she met, always seeming to have seen more than she could describe in words. And thus Paris Portraits turns out to be a chronicle of her self as much as a chronicle of the world around her.