Exploring in-humanity: Gertrude Stein's tender buttons and still-life painting

Nandini Ramesh Sankar, Cornell University

Abstract

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) composed her ‘verbal still lifes’ in Tender Buttons in explicit dialogue with the Post-Impressionist – particularly Cubist – uses of the still life. The utter obviousness and universal givenness of its referents have made it the genre least requiring exegesis or special attention. This leanness best explains the fascination it exerted upon the Modernists: devoid of subjective intrusions and emptied of traditional symbolic associations, it was best suited to express the ‘pure’ and fundamental components of visual composition. But even in its most abstract and formalist moments, the still life continues to harbour the disruptive plenitude of the non-human as that which provides the ground for the appearance of the human. I argue that Stein's Tender Buttons designates the still life as a space for alternative and possible forms of being human. Rather than being deliberately nonsensical or opposed to subjectivity as such, Tender Buttons remains cognizant of the inevitability of a subject whose every act of interpretation and inscription also constitutes self-interpretation and self-inscription. At the same time, it explores the possibility that the realm of things – rendered objects by the positing of the subject – might in fact offer the most congenial space for the recuperation of what is not yet or no longer human. Still lifes tend to accommodate both strangeness and familiarity in equal measure. The objects depicted are types rather than unique individuals, and their commonness makes them easy to replicate and possess.