Comparative Analysis Of Gertrude Stein And John Berger

Between two narratives that confront Cubism, in which one is a historical text and the other a critical text, authors Gertrude Stein and John Berger both adopt a unique position, using Pablo Picasso as a main point of reference. Gertrude Stein, who played an active part when Cubism was at a peak, deviates in how she engages with the topic, compared to John Berger, who wrote his text forty years later. This key difference in time allows perspective on how audiences shift, how historical context can shift, and how, even though Stein and Berger both attempt to engage with the cubist movement, differing styles of writing can produce unique effects.

As time passes, cultural and sociolinguistic values shift, acting as a catalyst for change within the art world and drastically altering how audiences react. The forty-year gap that separates Stein and Berger’s texts witnesses the decline of Cubism, altering the involvement of an individual that attempts to engage with a past phenomenon, as opposed to someone who lived during it. Stein’s writing feels experimental and modern for its time, resembling a flowing stream of consciousness where there is no expectation to find a greater narrative behind the words. Stylistic choices prevail, using repetitive words, phrases, and motifs as if to play with visual, and auditory if recited, textures. It is interesting to observe examples of contemporary audiences, such as Caroline Young, in how she has used Stein’s work in her first-year writing class, stating that “Stein's multisensory writing proves rich material through which to lead multimodal student engagement.” Stein’s work is studied as if it were a painting, with audiences focused on the stylistic approach within the work, as opposed to Berger who intentionally writes to be understood, by an audience who shares the same position as himself. Berger writes in a time where Cubism is no longer the prevailing art movement, only able to look back in speculative inspection of the past, yet uses this outlook to his advantage. Ali Smith calls Berger “a force of unselfishness in a culture that encourages solipsism, an insister on open eyes...” This declaration is supported by Berger’s lack of scrutiny within his text, as even though he is known as a critic, Berger instead focuses more on uncovering the thinking possessed by Cubist artists. He involves science and philosophy to provide unique theories, claiming that the Cubists were ‘feeling their way’ to movements of abstractionism, as the ‘philosophical equivalent of the new synthesis taking place in scientific thinking’. Such analysis is still relevant to modern-day audiences, making a strong distinction between the two authors. Stein’s work emulates physical art in how it is studied as a spectacle of its time, whereas Berger intends to teach and connect with an audience.

The differences in a text’s style can greatly differentiate how two authors address cubism. While both attempt to encapsulate what Cubism was, either analytically such as Berger’s, or in a more abstract way such as Stein’s, the resulting impressions left share little similarity. Berger’s writing incentivizes readers to follow along, as he begins with concise declarations that morph into themes that shape the passage. It is interesting to observe how Berger’s writing is taken at face value as conventionally accepted, in that an audience only expects for him to relay established, clear information, whereas Stein’s writing creates some controversy. Stein’s style of writing is ‘textural’, creating a core difference between the two texts. Just as Berger claims that “The Cubists felt their way, picture by picture, towards a new synthesis” in which artists were “dependent on the new materials and the new means of production,” Stein’s poetry seems to be doing this, as if she was uncovering a worded form of Cubism, where traditional artists like Picasso were equipped with paint. Jamie Hilder claims not to entertain the notion of her words being ‘painterly’ stating that ‘the linking of her literary work to the visual style of cubism often breaks down... when they try to use her work as a bridge between the media of linguistic and visual representation.” This perspective is valid as it would be unfair to group two means of expression that may inspire similar senses in an audience, but are otherwise strained by differences. For Stein to be known as a ‘Cubist Writer’ creates a unique identity, leading to less of a generalisation. This line of contemplation on Stein’s texts, as opposed to the uncomplicated way in which Berger’s writing is digested, makes for an interesting analysis on how audiences interpret style.

Historical context can become lost to time, leaving a potential dissonance between contemporary audiences and artists of the past. This includes the contrast between Stein, who lived amongst artists such as Picasso, compared to Berger, who can only comment from an outsider perspective. Stein and Picasso were considered good friends, as can be sensed at the start of this text. Stein’s use of ‘Napoleon’ as what she nicknames Picasso feels like an affectionate mocking, as both men were known to be shorter than average. Berger however, looks to the past with an academic eye, commenting on the artist through documents and records. An interesting observation is how John Berger focuses very little on Picasso, not once being mentioned until halfway through the text, but instead on Cubism as a collaboration. Berger is participating in the collaborative dialogue, seeking not to give any sole focus to Picasso as an individual, but to focus on the example of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon with which to provide his insights. Where Stein could provide insights on Picasso due to firsthand knowledge of the man, Berger can only comment on the art that is made for an audience, and through this, he can gather his own unique thoughts about the artist.

The fact that the two texts are set apart by a large gap of time contributes to core differences between Stein and Berger’s texts, as gradual progressions can be seen in how contrasting styles of writing can be received by differing audiences, and how first-hand knowledge regarding artists of the past can produce different readings of their work.

16 December 2021
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