English major homework tends to fall into two categories to the outside onlooker: read big books, or write big papers.
I won’t say this is incorrect, exactly. But sometimes, a different sort of work is required; sometimes we’re asked to get up from our leather chairs or writing desks, put down our fountain pens (oh, right: we all use fountain pens), go somewhere, and look at something. This semester, I’m in a class called “Modernist Networks in the Archive,” taught by one of the Special Collections librarians at Hopkins, Gabrielle Dean. Each week, we look at the poetry and prose of a different modernist writer — last week Gertrude Stein, this week Ezra Pound — and examine the first edition works or original letters of theirs that we have in our library. As part of our Gertrude Stein homework, we were asked to go to the BMA and look at certain works to get a sense of her taste while living in Paris, as well as of the artists she befriended left and right — Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, to name a few. So on a rainy Sunday, I left my usual Gilman haunt as soon as the museum opened and went to hang with Gertrude Stein’s pals.
This isn’t my favorite Picasso — and frankly, I’m not one of those people who has an absolute favorite Picasso — but it reminded me of a portrait he did of Gertrude in Paris. Minimal color scheme, eyes a bit abstracted on the face and looking just off-center, melancholic. I hadn’t ever looked at it very closely before, though I’ve been to the BMA a lot since coming to Hopkins. (So easy — just at the back of campus, in a quiet corner.) I was glad to have to look more closely at something that had always been there, but that I had always dismissed.
Stein and Matisse were main buds. Just trust me on that. I looked at this one in particular, because it felt like something Stein would have hanging in her famous parlor on one of the high walls. And it felt like it could be someone both she and Matisse knew, some fashionable member of the Parisian elite. And I just really liked the green in the background, the simplicity of her dress, the subtly swooping neckline, the necklace. One of the chiller Matisses at the BMA. (“chiller Matisses” is bona fide artspeak, by the way.)
My photo of this was abysmal, so I had to turn to the BMA website for help. But we had to find a painting that we felt captured modernism well, and this is the one I chose — the whole painting feels like it’s vibrating, and the green against the brownish orange is really something else. (More artspeak). Plus, Stein and Cézanne were peas in a pod. I don’t know that Stein would have purchased this herself, but it felt to me like something that so clearly pushes against whatever traditions of landscape painting came before, this glimpse at the earth vibrating.
I enjoyed myself on this homework assignment, though I know the BMA well. I remembered that there is always more to discover there, more you can look closely at, depending on the lens. As it turns out, cliches are cliches for a reason: they’re true. But I was glad to have the modernist lens, the Stein lens, in mind as I looked around this time. Now, however, back to the writing desk (and — duh — the fountain pen).