Tax-Funded Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibition Again Focused on Homosexuality

Penny Starr | January 10, 2012 | 3:33pm EST
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A photo of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as described on the National Portrait Gallery's Web site, says, 'Beginning with Stein’s radical haircut of 1926, the women created an homme-femme style, a lesbian mode of dressing still in fashion today.'

( – For the second year in a row, the federally funded National Portrait Gallery (NPG), a part of the Smithsonian Institution, held an exposition during the Christmas season focused on the homosexual lifestyle.

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” an exhibition appearing at the NPG from Oct. 14, 2011 through Jan. 22, 2012, focuses on lesbian activist and writer Gertrude Stein.

The exhibit, set up in five rooms at the taxpayer-funded museum, highlights Stein’s lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas and Stein’s “second family” of homosexual men, some of whom collaborated with Stein on various projects.

An introduction to the exhibition, posted on the wall at the entrance to the exhibit, describes Stein as “one of America’s most famous writers.” It also gives brief descriptions of each of the five stories in the exhibition, including “Domestic Stein,” which “looks at the lesbian partnership of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, focusing on their distinctive dress, home décor, hospitality, food and pets.” The “Art of Friendship,” the introduction says, “explores Stein's relationships and collaborations after World War I with the neoromantics, a circle of international artists who were young, male, and gay.”

In the introduction of the book published to accompany the exhibit, it states that “during those early years Stein also acknowledged her homosexuality, entering in 1908 into a lifelong partnership with Alice B. Toklas. In an era when a man or woman who loved another of his or her own sex was known as an ‘invert’ or a ‘pervert,’ Stein and Toklas’s monogamous relationship offers a remarkable example of a same-sex couple who survived, flourished even, despite continuing prejudice and intolerance of homosexuality.”

As for Stein’s work, the introduction notes that “feminist and queer scholars have looked at the countless ways Stein expressed and negotiated her sexuality.”

Last year, over the Christmas season, the museum hosted “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a self-described “homoerotic” exhibition that included a video with images of Jesus on an ant-covered crucifix, naked brothers kissing and other controversial pieces. After reported on the exhibit in November of last year, complaints about the exhibit--in particular, the image of the ant-covered crucifix--led Smithsonian officials to remove the video from the show.

As with “Hide/Seek,” the Gertrude Stein exhibition was paid for with private donations but the National Portrait Gallery building and personnel are supported by federal tax dollars.

When asked by about why it staged the Stein exhibit during the Christmas season, the museum provided a statement via e-mail from their public affairs office. asked: “In the past 14 months, NPG has mounted two exhibitions--Hide and Seek, and Gertrude Stein--that include a focus on the homosexual lifestyle. Given that NPG mounts less than a dozen exhibits annually, is there a reason that two exhibits within the past 14 months have included a focus on the homosexual lifestyle and is that part of NPG's mission as a national and taxpayer-funding institution?”

The National Portrait Gallery’s statement reads: “Gertrude Stein, as our exhibition texts state, was one of America’s most widely-known 20th century writers. She experimented radically with language and reached across the arts in a transatlantic community befriending young writers like Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stein was a lesbian did not influence why this exhibition was selected. Within the Portrait Gallery’s mission of interpreting significant and diverse individuals who influenced our national experience, she is an appropriate subject for a special exhibition. The show itself is a serious scholarly presentation accompanied by a book published by the University of California Press.

“The timing of specific special exhibitions like these is affected by the size and complexity of proposed shows, space and fundraising considerations, the availability of appropriate objects, and the ongoing mix of short-term and long-term installations.”

The museum rejected’s request to photograph the exhibit, citing copyright issues. The photographs posted with this story are photographs of pages in the book published along with the exhibition. These photographs were taken by and are posted with this story as a fair use for journalistic purposes to show readers what was exhibited at a government-funded museum.

The five “stories” told in the Stein exhibition are “Picturing Gertrude,” “Domestic Stein,” “Art of Friendship,” “Celebrity Stein,” and “Legacies.”

Choreographer Frederick Ashton collaborated with Stein for a musical 'Four Saints in Three Acts.' A photo in the exhibit shows Ashton embracing three naked male dancers. 'By his own account, Ashton had sexual relationships with at least two of the opera’s male cast members,' the placard accompanying the photo states.

In the “Art of Friendship” room, Stein’s collaboration with choreographer Frederick Ashton for the Opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” is documented. This includes a photo of Ashton surrounded by three nude black men who were principal dancers in the opera.

The placard accompanying the photo reads:

George Platt Lynes photographed choreographer Frederick Ashton, in an elegant suit and tie, kneeling to encircle three supine Four Saints cast members in his embrace.  Ashton’s pose, in conjunction with the performers’ nudity, implies an erotic as well as an artistic alliance. By his own account, Ashton had sexual relationships with at least two of the opera’s male cast members. The choreographer’s formal costume and his elevated position in relation to Maxwell Baird, Floyd Miller, and Billie Smith visually indicates his superior status, while the bare skin and intertwining limbs of the dancers code them as undifferentiated bodies, reliant on Ashton for shape and direction. Lynes’s dramatic lighting and stages exemplify the theatrical style of his studio portraiture during this period.

The photograph was loaned to the Smithsonian by The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

A collage in the exhibit -- Pavel Tchelitchew, Groupes de Mariages et en Tous Genres, 1929 -- includes a snapshot of Tchelitchew standing between Stein and Toklas. The placard accompanying the piece reads:

A snapshot of Pavel Tchelitchew, probably taken by his lover, the composer Allen Tanner, is at the heart of this cheeky collage, which is rife with double meanings.  Tchelitchew and/or Tanner most likely created the piece to commemorate a summer picnic with Stein and Toklas somewhere near Bilignin, their home in southeastern France.  Stein (whose famous saying “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” had made the flower her hallmark) would have appreciated the motif embellishing the paper doily that frames the composition.  The mount, appropriated from a local photographer’s studio, provides a caption for the snapshot.  It identifies the picture as an example of “Photographie Moderna” and presents the sitters under the rubric “groups de mariages et en tous genres” (marriage groups of every kind), perhaps as a sly comment on gay marriage and other ménages.

Pavel Tchelitchew's 'Groupes de Mariages et en Tous Genres' is a collage in the exhibit that includes a photo of Stein, Toklas and Tchelitchew, who also was gay. The placard says, in part, that it is 'an example of 'Photographie Moderna' and presents the sitters under the rubric 'groups de mariages et en tous genres' (marriage groups of every kind), perhaps as a sly comment on gay marriage and other ménages.'

In the 403-page book published in conjunction with the exhibition, the collage is described this way (page 141):

The mount indentifies this as an example of “Photographie Moderne” and, in smaller print, offers photographs of Groupes de Mariages et en tous genres.” In relation to the image of this queer ménage the phrase “groupes de mariages” invites misrecognition by English speakers as “group marriage,” rather than “marriage groups,” and the phrase “et en tous genres,” suggesting a range of photographic formats, inadvertently gives play to the slippage between “genre” and the French homonym denoting gender. The text, in ironic juxtaposition to the snapshot, presents this image as a group marriage involving a full range of genders and gender identification.

The “Domestic Stein” room includes a photograph of Stein and Toklas taken by Sir Cecil Beaton, accompanied by a placard that reads, in part, “Privately, the two women spoke of themselves as married and called each other husband and wife, dividing up chores along traditional gender lines.”

The placard for a photograph in the exhibit by Cecil Beaton of Stein and Toklas says, in part, 'Privately, the two women spoke of themselves as married and called each other husband and wife, dividing up chores along traditional gender lines.'

"Cecil Beaton, more than any other artist," the placard reads, "conveyed the ways the two women expressed their union in their dress and home life. For him, there was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude -- the union Stein described poetically as 'two are one' or 'we is one.' Beaton's photographs underline his admiration for Stein and Toklas's enduring and affectionate relationship."

Another photograph in the exhibit, “Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927,” is part of a Yale literary collection.

In the book, the photograph opens the chapter entitled “Becoming Gertrude and Alice” that discusses their lesbian relationship (page 63). The chapter includes quotes from notes they wrote to each other:

“Baby precious Hubby and and /loved his wifey, sweet sleepy wifey,/dear dainty wifey, baby precious sleep/sweetly and long is hubby’s song,/ and all mine and sweet is hubby’s treat and precious and true and all for you is hubby.” – Note from Gertrude Stein to Alice B. Toklas, 1926.

“My own petsie is a darling/And I love him dearly and/Completely and sweetly/Allie mine/We entwine.” -- Undated note from Alice B. Toklas to Gertrude Stein.

The book also includes a chapter entitled “Queer Stein,” which partly states the following:

“Gertrude Stein did to words what she did to gender codes: she ‘queered’ them; that is she implicated sexual transgression in the modernist imperative ‘to make strange.’ For example, in ‘A Long Gay Book,’ Stein innocently repeats the word ‘gay’ hundreds of time (sometimes as many as ten in a single sentence), allowing the reader to take her at her word, that this is indeed a gay-as-in-homosexual book, or a gay-as-in-happy book, or to choose to believe that repetition renders the title word and all its connotations senseless.”

The book published with the Smithsonian exhibit says that an article in Life magazine states that Stein was in danger being in France during World War II because she was 'a foreigner, she was Jewish, she was homosexual, she collected modern pictures, and she wrote in a modern style, all of which made her (and Toklas, who was also Jewish) vulnerable to persecution by the Vichy government and the Nazis.'

On another note, During World War II, Stein's communication with the rest of the world was cut off. The world learned she had survived the war through a photo essay, entitled "The Liberation of Gertrude Stein," published in Life magazine on Oct. 2, 1944.

The book published with the Smithsonian exhibit says that "there were many reasons to be concerned about her safety. She was a foreigner, she was Jewish, she was homosexual, she collected modern pictures, and she wrote  in a modern style, all of which made her (and Toklas, who was also Jewish) vulnerable to persecution by the Vichy government and the Nazis."

The book’s forward, written by Martin E. Sullivan, director of  the National Portrait Gallery, and Connie Wolf, director and CEO of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which helped the museum organize the exhibit, calls Stein “one of America’s most influential writers and thinkers of the twentieth century and is considered by many to be a creator of modernism.”

The two call the book a “groundbreaking publication.”

Although exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery are paid from by grants and donations – in this case, the main sponsors of “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” were the Foundation for American Art and E*Trade – all Smithsonian museums receive federal funding.

According to the NPG’s 2010 annual report, for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2010, the museum received $6,183,030 million in federal funds, up $328,480 from 2009.

The Smithsonian Institution’s operating budget for 2010 was $1.1 billion, with 11 percent of that budget provided by government grants and contracts.

Bethany Bentley, public affairs specialist with the NPG, responded to’s request to photograph the exhibit by saying that scheduling conflicts and the holidays made it impossible to arrange a guided tour of the exhibit until Jan. 4.

The museum’s statement also provided an explanation about its exhibits over the last calendar year and a list of those exhibits.

“The National Portrait Gallery presented 22 exhibitions in the last calendar year, drawn extensively from its own collections and other sources that together represent a broad diversity of subjects,” the museum's statement said.

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