Book Review: ECCENTRIC MODERNISMS by Tirza True Latimer

eccentric modernisms cover tirza true latimerTirza True Latimer’s most recent monograph is a slim yet substantial examination of a “network of enterprising outliers” that profoundly influenced art and culture making in the first half of the twentieth century, but have been generally been omitted from most accounts of modernism. But “why,” as she asks in the opening lines of the introduction, “do their names no longer strike a chord?”

Of course, this is a question and topic familiar to anybody who has spent any amount of time reading through this blog, so it is perhaps no surprise that Eccentric Modernisms deals with exactly the same type of material featured here: the communities of transatlantic queer modernist artists that established social networks to support their artistic endeavors.

Rather than launching a project of recuperation or attempting to “fix” established historical discourses, however, Latimer simply characterizes her book as “three case studies,” devoting a chapter each to Dix Portraits, a collaborative and lavishly produced publication which featured poems by Gertrude Stein and artwork by five of her then-current protégés, the mounting of the Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934, and View Magazine, the innovative art journal edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler during the 1940’s. The decision to direct all focus solely on three specific examples of “collectively produced art publications, performances, and ephemera” proves to be an elegant one in its dexterity and concision, with Latimer providing evocative details and minutiae to tacitly state the case for her larger arguments.

dix portraits ten portraits gertrude steinBut why eccentric modernisms, as opposed to any number of other modifiers—queer, bad, pop, improper, impossible, cosmopolitan, and so many others—that been attached to modernism in recent years? Latimer admits that “the distinction between queer and eccentric may not matter,” though it serves as a useful differentiation from other synonyms, such as marginality (4). In a conversation that aired on Yale University Radio, I was interested to find out that Latimer had actually started out using “queer modernisms,” but ultimately decided that for this project “queer” wasn’t intended to be “necessarily attached to a specific notion of sexuality,” but was instead a “more capacious term.” The distinction makes sense within the context of Latimer’s overall argument, even as it also reaffirms why I continue to use “queer modernisms” in my own work (I do want to retain some kind of basis in sexual orientation and/or behavior).

It was thrilling—and sometimes with a twinge of jealousy, I admit—to read through Latimer’s monograph, as she explores many of the exact same topics that I’m working through in my thesis: the difficulties of retrospectively applied terms and categories, the appeal of queer artistic networks, the motivation behind collaborative art making, the pleasures and perils of Gertrude Stein’s patronage, the nature of Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s artistic relationship, how and why so many things—even things which seem critically important—become “lost,” as well as the most effective strategies for recovering them. I suspect much that is here will find its way in one form or another in my own thesis, whether directly or conceptually. Latimer has been at the forefront of so much of the key scholarship of queer modernism (particularly her books dealing with lesbian expatriatism, the “modern woman,” and Stein’s enduring and multifaceted influence on modernism), and I suspect that Eccentric Modernisms is opening up space for a lot more work on these topics—which hopefully includes my own.

Eccentric Modernisms is available for purchase through the University of California Press.

View Magazine cover by Joseph Cornell, 1943

View cover designed by Joseph Cornell, January 1943

Works Cited:

Latimer, Tirza True. Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art. Berkeley: U of California, 2016. Print.

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Thesis Update: Notes from the Archive

This blog is long overdue for an update—and a #jessewritesathesis update in particular. In brief: I’m chipping away at it! Progress doesn’t accumulate nearly as quickly as I’d like, of course, but I now have several docs that hold quite a bit of writing. Still learning to avert—or rather, manage—the crippling inner editor who insists that every sentence or phrase be “perfect” before moving to the next, but things are slowly improving.

ransom center exteriorThe most important development which specifically warrants an update post, however, is that after many years of hoping and scheming I was finally able to do some actual archival research for this thesis. Two weeks ago I spent three days at the University of Austin’s Harry Ransom Center sifting through their extensive holdings on both Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and it just couldn’t have been a better experience. I was constantly impressed with how the Ransom Center and their staff were able to balance a (rightful) sense of protection over the remarkable material in their possession and an obvious commitment to access. As someone currently suspended somewhere between the categories of scholar and student, it was heartening to see that alongside the scholars were what seemed to be a constant stream of undergraduate students accessing and perusing material.

[That said, even though the Center is extremely generous in allowing users to take as many photos of the material as they want, one must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that forbids sharing it without written permission. So unfortunately I can’t provide any images to accompany the things I mention below. Just an FYI—I’m not being stingy!]

What did I find? Well, that three days was hardly enough to even pretend that I’d managed to scratch the surface in regards to what’s available for discovery in both of these archives. It’s been very heartening to see both Ford and Tyler receiving increasing scholarly interest over the last year or so—something itself I should do a write-up one of these days—which leads me to assume that eyes are starting to get on this material (indeed, I was told someone had been working with the Ford material the week before I arrived), but it was also IMMEDIATELY clear that this is a “story”—indeed, multiple stories—that needs, is even demanding, to be told. Though I was forced to do a lot of scanning/speed-reading, Ford’s prolific correspondence (of which this is only a partial holding; there also seems to be much held at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to say nothing of holdings in archives of his countless correspondents) offers so much first-person documentation of modernism, American expatriatism, the pre-Stonewall queer experience, and early twentieth century American/European culture in general—in addition offering perspectives that have been generally kept to the peripheries of historical accounts of these eras and communities.

djuna barnes letter

Image of a typical Djuna Barnes letter found online [NOT from the Ransom Center collection]

Perhaps the single most personally satisfying experience was the several hours spent poring over the collection of Djuna Barnes’s letters, most written between 1933 and 1936. Some were typed, but the majority were handwritten—itself a thrill (though it took a little while to acclimate to her distinctive handwriting!). I was able to answer some questions I had regarding Barnes’s involvement with the manuscript and initial publication of The Young and Evil, as well as Ford’s contact with Nightwood. I was also able to get quite a bit of insight into Barnes and Ford’s brief but intense romantic partnership, a chapter not widely known, probably because it complicates the most common narratives regarding both figures (and Barnes’s life and career in particular). A long term goal is to carve out of my thesis a publishable article on this specific topic.

Other highlights: several draft fragments from The Young and Evil that provide insight into Ford and Tyler’s collaborative process, as well as facsimile copies of Ford’s correspondence with Gertrude Stein which helped illuminate her involvement with the text.

And finally, more information which only led to more mystery: one of the central enigmas that has emerged during my research is the figure of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a poet and critic initially associated with the Harlem Renaissance and appeared in a number of the “little magazines” of the period. As well as taking on a kind of mentorship role and co-editor credit for Ford’s literary magazine Blues, she is important to The Young and Evil, not only as the novel’s dedicatee but appearing as the text’s only major female character. From her poetry I had started to suspect that she is actually a more crucial influence on Ford and Tyler than even Barnes and Stein; reading through her letters has only confirmed this.

Yet despite all these fascinating connections (and others—she went on to found a minor but admired publication company before a tragic and mysterious early death) Young currently remains more or less invisible—indeed, the several mentions of her currently out there (mostly in studies and compilations of women connected to the Harlem Renaissance) can only mention that practically nothing is known about her. Indeed, I’ve yet to come across a photograph of her. I was cautiously hoping an image of some kind would emerge somewhere in Ford’s material, but that ended up not being the case (at least in what I was able to go through)—though I sense that a dramatic pencil sketch of a female face on one of her letters might be a portrait of her. I’m  now more curious than ever about this fascinating, unknown figure; if anybody reading this happens to have ANY information on Young, please get in touch with me! (My info is in the “About” section.)

The Ransom Center actually shared on their Instagram account a snippet from one of letters from Young that I was able to look at, making it (I presume) ok to share here. I’ll also include below a few other images taken outside the restricted Reading Room.

It’s taken the two weeks since to simply organize and upload the notes and images (nearly 250 of them!) that I took over the course of the three days. Now it’s time to dive back into the writing—something I’m taking on again with a renewed sense of excitement and engagement. Wish me luck!

kty letter to chf ransom centerransom center jacques cocteauoscar wilde ransom center windowransom center leon bakst ballet russes costume

Top to bottom:

  1. Letter from Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford (1928), posted on the Ransom Center Instagram account
  2. The eyes of Jean Cocteau from the interior of Ransom Center
  3. “Apparition” of Oscar Wilde on the exterior of the Ransom Center
  4. Original costume designed by Léon Bakst for Narcisse, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe (1911)

 

 

IotD: The Unexpected Collaboration of Alice B. Toklas and Picasso

Needlepoint might not be what most think of when they think of modernist art, but we’ve actually featured it here before. Below are two examples of Alice B. Toklas’s needlepoint, taken from designs by Pablo Picasso.

alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chairsalice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 1alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 2

Juliet Clark from SFMOMA has a really nice write-up that prominently features these two chairs, including a lengthy excerpt from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that relates the series of events that led to their creation.

The two chairs, before Toklas transformed them, can actually be glimpsed in the famous Man Ray portrait of the two women in their shared home at 27, rue de Fleurus (Alice is sitting in one of them):

man ray portrait stein toklas

Yet another reason to (re)consider Toklas as an accomplished artist in her own right.

Provenance:

Alice B. Toklas (from a design by Pablo Picasso)
Two armchairs, fabric and wood
Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Man Ray, c. 1922
Gelatin silver print
Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

 

scholarship

I finally got around to posting a sample of my academic work over at Academia.edu. The paper is “I Like Detectiving Almost as Much as Writing:” Detectives Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the Work of Samuel M. Steward,” a very well-received conference paper I presented during “The Other Detective II” panel at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in San Diego, November 1, 2013.

The paper was a response to a short passage in Justin Spring’s magisterial biography Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo, and Sexual Renegade (2010):

“At the suggestion of Michael Denneny, a pioneering gay editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York, Steward then set to work on a series of mystery novels featuring Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as sleuths. The writing of these light entertainments would take up the final years of Steward’s life, with Murder is Murder is Murder published in 1985 and The Caravaggio Shawl in 1989, but they were disappointing works of fiction, weakly plotted and of little value even to those interested in the lives of Stein and Toklas” (397).

I read both of these novels and found them quite delightful, and was rather stunned by Spring’s complete dismissal of their value. This was my attempt to understand what I found so interesting, compelling–and ultimately quite resonant–about these so-called “disappointing works of fiction.”

The paper can be found here, and my Academia.edu profile here.
Steward - Caravaggio ShawlSteward - Murder is Murder is Murder

What’s Here/Queer/Modernist: Weekly Reads #2

Here’s what here/queer/modernist out in the world [wide web]:

Stein Van Vechten Toklas

Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, & Alice B. Toklas, January 4, 1935.

Well, it certainly seems to have been a very Carl Van Vechten week. Not everyone might be pleased with the latest Edward White biography, but it has certainly seemed to spark a lot of reinterest in his life and his work. Here’s a rundown of some CVV things that appeared this last week:

Most substantial was White’s long essay for The Paris Review, which specifically focuses on his relationship with Gertrude Stein: “Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. ‘I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,’ Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. ‘Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.’”

Two things I never expected to have to write in the same sentence: Carl Van Vechten made an appearance on Craigslist this last week. Here in San Francisco first edition copies of Music and Bad Manners (1916) and Interpreters and Interpretations (1917), owned by the same family for nearly a century, showed up on the popular classifieds website. Place in the “if I had a spare $600 just lying around…” file.

“Carl Van Vechten: Photographer to the Stars” is an exhibition opening this week at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the local museum of CVV’s hometown. It features a collection of photographs that CVV himself donated to the museum in 1946 and which was later augmented by his estate, and runs through September 7.Van Vechten Photographer of the Stars

This spotlight topic at glbtq.org this month is the Harlem Renaissance, which features a number of queer modernist luminaries, including Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, and, of course Van Vechten himself. Why Richard Bruce Nugent, the most overtly out of this circle doesn’t have his own page at this point, however, remains something of a mystery.

ALSO:

lunch poems o'haraCity Light Books will be publishing a 50th anniversary edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which was first published in 1964 as part of the publisher’s famous Pocket Poet Series. The new edition will feature a forward by O’Hara’s friend, the poet John Ashbury. The also point to a feature over at The Atlantic regarding the collection, as well as a reading of the entire book taking place in New York City on June 11.

Modernist Cultures has just released their May 2014 issue, with a focus on modernism and dance. Featuring Nijinsky (of course), Josephine Baker, Pavlova, Massine, etc, etc.–can’t wait to dive into this! (Not sure what the access issues are, email me if you’re having issues.)

An essay titled “Kleist’s Cycle of Consciousness: Modeling Identity in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood by Karen Lively has been posted by The California Journal of Women Writers, a publication I clearly need to start paying attention to.

What did I miss? Please let me know!

IotD: Rejecting Gertrude Stein

I had read this infamous 1912 rejection letter of Stein’s The Making of Americans but never seen an actual image of it. A recent event hosted by the Studio 360 blog staged readings of rejection letters sent to famous writers, including this one:

Gertrude Stein Rejection LetterClever, rather cruel, and more than a bit bitchy, I’d say! You can listen to the readings here, and  transcription and more detailed information about the letter itself can be found at the Letters of Note website.

IotD: Francis Rose Depicts Stein & Toklas at Home

stein & toklas - sir francis rose

stein and toklas - sir francis rose

Sir Francis Cyril Rose was a titled British painter that Gertrude Stein patronized throughout the 1930’s, but despite her best efforts she was never able to generate much sustained interest in his work and he remains an obscure figure of the era.

And while Rose is certainly no Picasso or even a Matisse, there’s a quality to his art that more immediately compels than the work of either of those more famous artists. I particularly like how he is able to evoke a sense of comfortable queer domesticity at 27 rue de Fleurus, with as much emphasis on Toklas and their beloved dogs as on her famous modern art collection. The Stein glimpsed here is certainly a far cry from, say, the imperious sibyl immortalized by Picasso some twenty years before.

I did a fair amount of research on Rose several years ago in conjunction with a paper I wrote on Samuel M. Steward, and truly, there are aspects of Rose’s life that are stranger than fiction. I’ll have to write up some more information on this curious figure sooner than later.

Provenance

TOP: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (1939)
Sir Francis Cyril Rose
Tempera and gouache on cardboard
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

BOTTOM: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (1939)
Sir Francis Cyril Rose
Gouache on paper
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

What’s Here/Queer/Modernist: Weekly Reads #1

Several of the blogs I regularly read present a weekly–or at least occasional–list of items of interest on the web, and I thought I’d follow suit. Also, I thought this would be a good place to include information on events that aren’t specifically or solely related to queer modernism, but would be of interest to anybody in And if you have any leads on material of interest, please let me know in the comments section!

So here’s what here/queer/modernist out in the world [wide web]:

The Quill Cover - Clara TiceBand of Thebes reminded me that I missed Lincoln Kirstein’s birthday last week, on May 4. Shame on me, but luckily he was there with a celebratory post.

Bookplate Junkie shares a flea market discovery: an October 1919 copy of The QuillA Magazine of Greenwich Village. The issue is dedicated to illustrator Clara Tice, who has a wonderful Beardsley-meets-Djuna Barnes quality. True to form, he also includes some bookplate examples of Tice’s work.

“A bio represents a selection of facts. But, as Nancy Mitford argues, ‘It should not be a mere collection of facts.'” Sketchbook reviews the new Carl Van Vechten biography by Edward White over at Goodreads, and he is not particularly impressed with it (and that’s more than a bit of an understatement).

“As a lesbian writer, even as one who has known many interesting people, I have very little in common with [Edmund] White.”  A skeptical Janet Mason takes on–and is ultimately won over by–White’s latest, Inside a Pearl, My Years in Paris.

In “how did I miss this?!” news, here in San Francisco there was a commemoration of the centennial of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which also promoted the release of Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, published by the iconic City Lights Books. Happily, audio of the event has been made available for those of us who missed it.

Speaking of Stein, Poets.org has shared some archival footage of the great iconoclast.

I don’t think that Susan Sontag was a great film critic; to hear her tell it, she wasn’t really a critic at all. But it’s still hard to overestimate her importance as an American writer in relation to movies.” Jonathan Rosenbaum has posted his remembrance of Sontag written after her passing in 2005.

The Ezra Pound Society has announced that they have a new virtual home.

EVENTS OF INTEREST

blast-at-100 event posterJust another reminder that the H.D., Jean Epstein, and Queer Modernism, Spectatorship, and The Specimen lecture(s) are coming up this Friday (05/16/14) at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York. I wrote up the event here, and the actual event page can be found here.

Trinity College is hosting a “Blast at 100” this summer to commemorate the Vorticist literary magazine, and just announced their plenary speakers for the event. Details and registration can be found here.

 

 

IotD: Soirée by Florine Stettheimer

fssoiree

Before I get too far along, I thought I should specify the painting that serves as the main avatar for this blog: Florine Stettheimer’s Soirée (1917-19), also sometimes known as Studio Party. I’ve long been entranced by Stetteimer’s witty and whimsical sensibility, and when it came to select an image that would best encapsulate the intentions of this blog, her paintings seemed a somewhat inevitable choice. I’m consistently dazzled with how she utilizes minute but sharply observed details to embed narratives within her images, and she’s at her best when depicting groups of individuals interacting with each other within a specific space. A number of her paintings capture this dynamic, but Soirée is my very favorite of them all.

Florine Stettheimer c. 1917-20

Florine Stettheimer c. 1917-20

“Queer modernism” is a necessarily ambiguous term that defies precise definition or categorization, but the overriding dynamic I constantly return to is the emphasis on connection and collaboration. The individuals I generally consider “queer modernists” seemed to actively and intentionally construct extensive relational networks (both professional and often personal in nature), and what is consistently thrilling about studying these figures is how they all seemed to know each other in some way. Queers often served as the key conduits for the promotion of modernist art, and many (most?) of the great, storied salons of the modernist era were held by figures that were queer: Stein and Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus, Natalie Barney’s Académie des femmes, Carl Van Vechten’s racially desegregated house parties, etc, etc–and while the salon of the three Stettheimer Sisters, the subject of this particular painting, is not as well known today as those three gatherings, it functioned as a vital site of queer modernist expression as well.

I have a number of Stettheimer-related images and material lined up for future “Image of the Day” and other types of posts, but until then the excellent art-oriented blog Venetian Red has a wonderful post on Stettheimer that serves as a nice overview or introduction to the artist, and features a number of high-quality images of her paintings, something which is absolutely essentially to fully appreciate their intricacies and keen visual wit.

Provenance

Soirée (1917-19)
Florine Stettheimer
Oil on Canvas
Yale University Art Gallery
Gift of Joseph Solomon from the estate of Florine Stettheimer

Info Source: Yale Digital Content; Image Source: Venetian Red