“Art is no place for snobs,” Leo Stein wrote in his foreword to Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, a marvelous little guide to opening one’s eyes and ears. Written about a year before his death in 1947 from stomach cancer–the same disease that killed his sister, Gertrude, in 1946–Appreciation is a book for anyone who’s ever felt themselves incapable of understanding or appreciating great literature or art.
On the surface, Leo Stein had every right to hold his opinions about art above those of the crowd. Although overshadowed by his sister through much of his life–and after–he was the trailblazer in their discovery of the Post-Impressionists painters and the work of French writers such as Rimbaud and Paul Valery. He was one of the first Americans to buy paintings by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and the house they shared at 27 rue de Fleurus became a center of the artistic community in Paris. Both Matisse and Picasso made portraits of Leo, who was respected for his sensitivity and perception as much or more for his influence on other collectors.
Few brothers and sisters could have been more different in temperament than Leo and Gertrude. In her foreword to Journey into the Self, a collection of Leo’s letters and diaries edited by Edmund Fuller and published in 1950, their friend Mabel Weeks wrote:
Gertrude successfully integrated her character around her limitations. Leo could not accept his limitations. Gertrude, whatever her neuroses, made herself a life with few frustrations; Leo had thousands of frustrations, and only the by most rigorous self-discipline got rid of some of them. Gertrude’s personality was magnetic; she had a laugh from the middle of her, and a sort of warmth and zest and enjoyment which gave her a tremendous appeal, particularly to young people. Leo was very withdrawn, and didn’t win people. She insisted that everyone meet her on her own terms. Leo, in a way, couldn’t meet anyone except on his own terms. But he wasn’t a bully. Gertrude bullied everyone.
Through much of his life, Leo struggled against what Weeks calls “his tendency to burrow within,” and while this severely limited his output compared his prolific sister’s (his only other book was a collection of essays titled, The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)), it also means that what one finds in Appreciation is the result of long consideration.
Leo Stein described Appreciation, with characteristic modesty, as “a little debauch in the realm of ideas,” but this does the book a great injustice. There is nothing of the abstract or esoteric here. Instead, this is a most democratic view of great art.
“It is, I believe, a good thing to recognize the continuity of the usual and the unusual, and if we are to be reverent it is better to be widely and not narrowly reverent.” The muscles in Stein’s arm, for example, “are not essentially different from those of Joe Louis.” The only difference is that “His have more punch in them.”
Bridging the gulf between us and the work of genius, in Stein’s view, starts with the understanding that in each of us there lies some measure of creative power. “Every personal letter one writes, every personal statement one makes, may be creative writing if one’s interest is to make it such.” And while something like this blog entry doesn’t remotely approach the same level as, say, Hamlet, the two works exist on a continuum of human creations. To Stein, “continuity illuminates”: “The value of the great things is made more valuable when they are known as exceptional, not in their kind but in their degree.”
Stein’s own appreciation of the art of painting, for example, only really came into full bloom when he asked himself, “How does a painter see when he paints?” To answer that, he set himself a little experiment:
I put on the table a plate of the kind common in Italy, an earthenware plate with a simple pattern in color, and this I looked at every day for minutes or for hours. I had in mind to see it as a picture, and waited for it to become one. In time it did. The change came suddenly when the plate as an inventorial object, one made up of parts that could be separately listed, a certain shape, certain colors applied to it, and so on, went over into a composition to which all these elements were merely contributory. The painted composition on the plate ceased to be on it but became a part of a larger composition which was the plate as a whole. I had made a beginning to seeing pictorially.
This experiment well illustrates a key principle in Stein’s approach to appreciation: namely, that serious appreciation takes time and effort. “Pleasure in clear hard thinking is not so common as it ought to be,” he remarks at one point, and one of the pleasures of Appreciation is Stein’s candor in describing his own trials in coming to an understanding of certain poets and painters. In the case of Picasso, he confesses that his efforts ultimately failed. (Their differences over the value of Picasso’s work was one of the reasons Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways in 1914 and never again spoke to each other.)
Stein was entirely a pragmatist. The whole message of Appreciation is one of bringing art into the context of one’s life. He may not have read E. M Forster’s Howards End, but I’m sure he would have agreed with Margaret Schlegel’s adage, “Only connect the prose and the passion.” “Wisdom that is worth having must be brought down to earth,” he writes at the close of the book, even if, “on solid earth a snail’s pace is the measure of its progress.” And in this respect, Appreciation embodies the remarkable progress made by a snail named Leo Stein.