Monday, 29 July 2013

Suppose a Salon

Alex Michon visits the grand confines of Chelsea College's banqueting hall, the meeting place of the Suppose a Salon /Symposium, and learns of a recipe that she's eager to try out.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Where do stoner culture, lesbian sex, food, burlesque nipple tassels and high art modernism converge? These items were all on the agenda at the Suppose A Salon /Symposium which was held in conjunction with the Suppose An Eyes exhibition currently at Transition Gallery.

Tender Buttons published in 1914 is Gertrude Stein’s innovative book of verse, from which the three Suppose an Eyes artists: Lady Lucy, Jacqueline Utley and Flora Whitely found their collective starting point for the exhibition. This modernist abstract text became the catalyst for a series of events, discussions and an accompanying publication. Along the way the artists have picked up a veritable fan-club of writers, curators, artists and film makers, whose enthusiasm, knowledge and sheer delight in ‘La Stein’ all contributed to the lively, informative symposium held on a scorching yet balmy Friday in the Grade 2 Listed grandeur of the Banqueting Hall at Chelsea College of Art.

The site of the salon symposium

A disconcerting jumble of words fill the hall, somewhere a record is being played on old school vinyl. I am trying to pick out some sentences, but it's not making any logical sense, ‘family living can go on existing, and their family is not existing, and some can come to be old ones, and some can be not yet dead, some family living can go on existing everyone can come to be a dead and some are remembering….’ and so it goes on. 
This is of course Gertrude reading her own work, and the dislocation of meaning, the meandering and repetition is exactly the point. We are fairly and squarely in the lingual land of abstract modernism, right at the heart of Stein’s early 20th Century’s rupture with the past. Sound replaces sense in a liminal space where we should be able to ‘hear colour and see sound’, where poetry should produce intense feeling rather than meaning..
All this is clearly and expertly explained by Isabelle Parkinson, the first speaker who is currently working on a PHD, the working title of which is Gertrude Stein’s modernism, a finished or unfinished project?
Parkinson is a genuine Stein buff with a real talent for introducing her subject to the uninitiated. She speaks of Stein’s image and about how her reinvention of language was mirrored in the writer’s re-costuming of herself. She shows us early photographs of Stein classically corseted and trussed in the restrictive 19th century manner and contrasts them with her later incarnations as a stylish bohemian princess, or more accurately, prince. It’s the iconic look which we have come to associate with La Stein. That great mannish, loosening up that was so ahead of its time and which reminds me of all the other fabulous girl/boy dressers from Bowie to Patti Smith. As with all the great iconoclasts, having an individual look is central to the project, a reinvention that rocks not just the intellectual but the visual senses. 

Parkinson also introduces us to two of Stein’s expat American contemporaries, who like her ran literary salons in Paris: Mabel Dodge and Natalie Clifford Barney. Feisty gals who also burned their last century stays to usher in new role-femme models.
The photos of Barney’s transformation are particularly striking with the one of her in trousers looking like it could literally have been taken yesterday.
Natalie Clifford Barney, with and without trousers

Mabel Dodge was the heiress of a wealthy banker from New York who was involved in the planning and publicising of the Armory Show in New York in 1913. This was the first avant garde art exhibition in America. It showed Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary Nude Descending a Staircase and included American artists alongside European ones for the first time.

A great self-publicist, Dodge privately published 300 copies of Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia to hand out at the Armory show. She was also an early friend and supporter of Stein’s and wrote the first critical analysis of Gertrude's writing, which was featured in the March 1913 edition of Arts and Decoration. For once, not bigging herself up she graciously wrote:

In Gertrude Stein's writing every word lives and, apart from concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music. Just as one may stop, for once, in a way, before a canvas of Picasso, and, letting one's reason sleep for an instant, may exclaim: "It is a fine pattern!" so, listening to Gertrude Stein's words and forgetting to try to understand what they mean, one submits to their gradual charm.

Mabel Dodge, more modernist costuming in 1925


It was an unexpected pleasure to be introduced to these two pioneering ladies who lunched at the table of modernism. And speaking of lunch, next up we had Laura Mansfield, reading out a luscious text inspired by the food section from Tender Buttons in which Stein lists dishes of food emphasising the movement of the mouth whilst eating and speaking. Hearing Laura speaking her text was an interesting way into Stein’s methodology, an introduction to an understanding of what after all is quite a difficult text.

Here is a segment of Mansfield’s text, the full version of which appears in the Suppose an Eyes publication.

‘dinner; dining; eating; salad; sauce; oranges and oat-meal; salad dressing and an artichoke; a centre in a table’

There was something about the 'O' in 'oranges' and 'oat-meal' mimicking the 'O' of the mouth that stayed with me long after the symposium. On the bus on the way home a lady close by to me, who I think ran a B&B, was performing a similar (unknowingly Steinian recitation) whilst explaining to her friend what she served her guests. All I heard was:

‘porridge, and then a cooked breakfast, ham and cheese, and couscous and a good potato salad, and strawberries.’

Mansfield is a writer and curator who has recently developed the project FEAST, a series of three publications presenting contemporary visual art and film works that explore our relationship with food as social event, marker of identity, product of history and commodity for trade. She also very kindly invited us all to partake in a large colourful selection of fruits from an adjoining table.


A slight break and more scratchy vinyl recordings courtesy of Michal William, designer, recording producer, sculptor and vinyl junkie who collects original and rare recordings of writers reading from their own work. Being something of a old school recordings fan myself I go over to peruse the exquisite LP covers and have a chat with Michal. I am pleased to discover that he gets most of them from scouring second hand shops and only a few courtesy of Ebay. I know you can get anything from cyberland these days but it does not beat the sheer joy of coming across something unusual, rare, downright quirky and dirt cheap at a car boot or junk shop now does it?

This is the one Michal bought on Ebay
And this is the one he found in a second hand shop

Whilst in the realm of picking up rare relics of Steinian interest, Linzi Stauvers who obtained a PHD for her thesis titled Stein through the Sixties. Minimalist and Post Minimalist artists rehearse Gertrude Stein’s Poetics, tells us about a visit she made to New York, where she sought out the shop Tender Buttons. The shop is entirely devoted to buttons, and named after Stein’s classic work it also has an interesting history. It was opened in 1964 by the late Diane Epstein who had been an editor for Funk Magazine. At first the shop, an old button store Epstein found on East 77th Street, functioned only as an art space, where artists including Japer Johns and Ray Johnson would meet and discuss ‘pop art and 29 shades of green’. But with some order introduced among the many crumbling boxes of buttons by the antique restorer Millicent Safro, who had come in to buy a button and later became a partner, the shop grew to become a successful venture and can still be visited today at its new location at 143 East 62nd Street.

A whole heap of tenderness – the store in New York 


Over the years it has been suggested that the Tender Buttons of the title could be a hidden metaphor for nipples. Lest we forget Stein and her partner/lover of 39 years Alice B Toklas are two of the most famous lesbians in history and one of its happiest couples. Of course it's no-one’s business really what goes on in the bedroom, but with Stein and Toklas it sort of is. They were out and proud almost a century ago, and though civil partnerships no longer frighten any but the most bigoted of individuals, this is a remarkably recent development. Apart from being trailblazers and elegant role models for unconventionality, Gertrude also wrote a great deal about the delights of her sex life with Alice. Her work included many references to her Alice as 'my delicious dish, my little wife' and many references to 'cows' which Steinian scholars have suggested are orgasms.

The artist Nicky Hodge showed her short video Lifting Belly is all There which was inspired by Stein’s poem the meaning of which is unambiguously explicit

I am fonderst of all of lifting belly
Lifting belly is in bed
And the bed has been made comfortable
Lifting belly so high
And aiming
Exactly and making a cow come out

For her film Hodge invited a selection of couples and non-couples, male and female, to read out parts of the text from Lifting Belly. All the Alices wear a marvelously evocative black hat (just like the one the painter Romaine Brooks wears in her self portrait 1925) and hold a handbag (Alice being acknowledged by both parties to be the more wifey of the two). All the Gertrudes wear a white shirt and either their own short cropped grey hair or a wig. Because of the aforementioned iconic look of the famous couple this minimal costuming is very effective. The readings were by turn, moving, intriguing and often hilarious, mostly due to the only two men in the film who could not stop cracking up with laughter whilst reading their parts.

Romaine Brooks wearing her 'Lifting Belly Toklas Hat' 

Filmmaker and academic Gill Addison also introduced an element of whimsy, which centered around a fictitious pastie or nipple tassle. In her video A single hurt colour vs a chance to see a tassel, from the Tend her Buttons suit part 3 Addison re-imagines the tassle as something she has found as an important piece of Stein memorabilia. ‘I scoured all the known film and photographs of Gertrude Stein in Paris trying to find some evidence that she had been at the Moulin Rouge’ she says. ‘I found one with her outside a  theatre, it could have been the Folies Bergere or it could have been anywhere, that was enough evidence for me.’

Tender Buttons is made up of three distinct sections: objects, food and rooms. 93 colours are noted in the objects section, and in Addison's video starring the twirling pastie, the 93 colours and the order of their occurrence act as both backdrop and direct reference, bringing the Tend-her-Buttons suit as she paraphrases the original to a conclusion.

In her own recent projects, as part of the Subjectivity and Feminisms Research group at the UAL, Addison explores the complexities of how the event and the archive interrelate using the archive to re-examine a lost moment as both a liberating and political act. In conversation with Gill I also discover that she has compiled an extensive list of all the films in which Gertrude Stein is featured, the most amusing of which is one where Gertrude is played by Bernard Cribbins and Alice is played by Wilfred Bramble. A quick Wiki search unearths this as The Adventures of Picasso (original title: Picassos äventyr). a 1978 Swedish film comedy directed by Tage Danielsson.


The symposium ended with Linzi Stauvers asking the assembled by now Gertrude Stein fanatics, what their first encounter with Stein had been.

Pearl, an American who described herself as ‘not an artist but a member of the audience – artists need audiences too you know’ – recalled her time in San Francisco in the 60s when ‘we would read Stein when we were off our heads on various substances and also when we were not off our heads, Stein was just so relevant to us at that time. And as for lesbians… well there was the whole gay thing of course  but lesbians they weren’t even considered or spoken of, so she was very important to us for that too.’

My own distant memory from the 60s pulled out the phrase ‘I love you Alice B Toklas’ which I thought had been from an Arlo Guthrie poster. Another Wiki search found it to be the title of a 1968 counterculture film starring Peter Sellers. The Alice B Toklas reference comes from her famous cookbook which included a recipe for hash brownies and – as I think Pearl or someone else from the audience informed me – that is where the phrase a ‘toke’ came from.

Stein is not an easy read, that’s for sure, as Rosie Cooper, recently appointed Project Curator at the Liverpool Biennial writes in the Suppose an Eyes publication ‘Stein experimented with deliberate obfuscation in order to make the written word active, creating a stutter that trips up meaning even as we appear to receive it, challenging the subject to be active too.’

I myself have a number of unread Stein texts in my collection, however after being so graciously informed of all things Stein by the learned experts in this Salon Symposium I will certainly be giving her writing another go. There is however one important book missing in my collection, the famous cookbook with its special recipe, which I cannot wait to try out.

Alex Michon

The Suppose An Eyes tour started in Berlin at Galerie Futura, (11 May – 14 June 2013), it is at Transition Gallery until 11 August and will be at Vane, in Newcastle (18 September – 26 October 2013).

A publication has been produced in collaboration with Berlin based designer Annette Knol to accompany the tour and is available from Transition Gallery and online priced at £3.50.


  1. Twas a round unvarnish'd tale delivered in your own demure style and given just a hint of the provocatuer that keeps the reader engaged whilst not crossing the line. I would not butter you up if your review was not worthy (in my opinion.)

    But this was 'home-turf for you and the journey you took us on tripped lightly off the tongue (or pen), osmotically weaving from event to event. Nothing disjointed or jumpy here - even for one of the booboisie as myself who knew nothing of such subjects, I was transported effortless through such 'naughty' concepts as 'lifting belly' and 'tend-her-buttons' (I'm blushing here)....but still syllogistically enough to keep us enroute. At no time did I feel lost in the lofty concepts espouced (which says something for little old guttersnipe me), and yet you were able to craftily insert your own bon mots to 'crisp-up' what could have become wilted lettuce.

    Your coup-de-grais was the introduction of Pearl, which brought the whole piece bang into the here-and-now, and that's a very clever trick (intended or not.) I feel I wanted to know more about her, and her journey (for she obviously had one), and her thoughts lent the exhibition a connectedness and reality with the present. Too often, these obviously rich women from the past seem remote and distanced from the laity, their status allowing them to get away with such flagrant abuses of the conventions of the time. Pearl reminded us of the continual effects these women had on future generations and continue to do.

    So, well done, artsy-girl. It was the best one yet (imo).

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