Stein and Design: The Elements and Principles of Composition


Line, color, space, contrast
Balance, texture, emphasis

The elements are the technical components of design. The lines, the shapes, the forms.

The principles are the effect of the organizing those elements. The rhythm of the lines. The emphasis of a focal point due to contrasting values. The unity of the design sensed through a color scheme.

 The principles are the organization of the elements.
The composition is organization of the principles organizing the elements.
The composition is a self-contained design, but tends to gesture to something beyond itself.

Gesture towards the artist.

Gesture towards previous art.

Gesture towards the viewer of the art.

The artist, when in the process of organizing the elements and principles loses her sense of time and of identity in space and time and is constantly beginning and beginning and again organizing the elements into principles into composition that is always being created while it is being created. It is making itself as it is being made. It is preparing things while they are being prepared.

 Art is the composition of the composition of and through time.

A gesture in space.

I don’t identify as a skilled artist. I draw a dog and it looks like a mutilated buffalo. I can’t say I have an extensive background in art history or studio skills, but I have an interest in the nature composition that fundamentally impacts the way I produce images, read literature, and consume historiography. At the start of this post, I added an image of a composition I made in high school. It is a huge 3-dimensional wall hanging (probably 2.5*3 feet) that is made from cardboard, caulking, hot glue, acrylic paint, and found materials like clay and screws. It is an exaggerated, modern replication of a piece by Pablo Picasso titled Tete d’une Femme Lisant:

Tete d’une Femme Lisant

At this point, I am sure you are wondering what in the world what I have to say about art history and my silly attempts to interact with the art world have to do with our intro to queer literature class. Let me explain, I think there is a profound connection between artistic compositions and literary compositions can be extrapolated from material creativity and can be applied to the art of living. This discussion of art, what might make art queer, and the significance of context when studying composition, I think, is deeply related to our class discussions.

I bring up the Picasso piece and my reinterpretation of it to give a personal example of how concrete elements and principles are manipulated to design a composition of art. That is, in visual art we decide how to fill space to give it visual interest. But more than the spatial or visual elements and principles, I think there are also historical or social elements and principles at play here. Art is always a gesture at something, which must be true because it can never actually be the thing itself—only a representation of it. I could have never made my wall hanging had I not had a sense of cubist theory and had an understanding of the formal features as well as the historical context of Picasso’s work. Picasso was clearly innovative with his manipulation of the elements and principles of design, but more than that he was also able to use the formal style of his art to emphasize the significance of its content. Furthermore, he engaged in the Parisian salons (and was extremely supported by his dear patron Gertrude Stein) and worked to compose art as a way to enter into a timely dialogue with artists of his generation. When I mention this idea of using formal style to emphasize the significance of content, I am particularly thinking of two things. First of all, Guernica:

Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1937)

You see, the stark contrast of the black and white emphasizes the intensity of wartime violence. The exaggerated shapes and cartoonish figures gestures towards the absurdity and intensity of the Spanish Civil War. The sharp edges make the space feel unkempt or unsafe. The style reinforces the content.

I use this example of Picasso’s work because I think it makes it easy to visualize this concept. But wait—I mentioned that there were two things. Other than Guernica, I think of Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation.” Similarly, Stein takes formal elements of writing and uses a queer style to emphasize the content of her essay. Now, Gertrude Stein’s essay and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica were composed about ten years apart, but I think they are still engaging with one another. This is because both of these works  touch on the elements of composition, the continuous gesturing towards something that is difficult to signify, the sense of timelessness in composition.

Stein writes:

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time of the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain.

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition if the natural phenomena of the composition and of that perhaps everyone can be certain.

I find this passage of the essay helpful when trying to understand the interconnectedness of art and literature. In both cases, the thing that is making time (if you can call it that) is the creative conversation going on in the present because the act of creation, or rather—composition, is the act of organizing the elements of the present into a conversation that defines (but also is defined by) the current generation. Because history is told, there is time. And history is told through composition.  And identity of time is lost during the creation of composition but also revealed after its presentation.

I don’t mean to get too far away from our point here, but I think these are interesting ideas to think about and discuss. At least, this long-winded blog post is my attempt to weed out some of Stein’s inter-looping ideas by taking the elements of her text and organizing them with my own set of interests and pieces of background knowledge. I think the dialogue between members of the creative community is essential to creation of composition, and I see a strong connection between some of the strategies employed by both Picasso and Stein. Although I can offer less background knowledge in this area, I think there can also be a strong connection interpreted between Stein’s meditation on the use and meaning of language and discussion of time with writings of continental philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben. That is to say, all of these creative works gesture towards something (even if it is to itself, as is sometimes true in Stein’s case: “the time of the composition is the time of the composition”) and this gesture widens the scope of the composition to not just be self-contained, but also a sort of element in its own sense that is organized into a composition of history as we come to understand it (through time).

Okay, let me take one last moment to discuss how queerness plays into this.
I think the queerness of a text, a piece of art, or historical period depends on the way we as readers compose our understanding of it. Our generation chooses to organize the elements of history into whatever composition can give it the most meaning, significance, and validity. While we are retelling the story of the stories these writers wrote, we are simultaneously creating a history of our own. And the fact that we are having these conversations is shaping our understanding of queer literature through history that gives us a more developed definition of queerness in the present, which defines our own generation. If “there is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking,” then the thing we are looking at is our composition of things. Our organization of these texts and authors and artists really isn’t so different from my organization of line and space and color in the Picasso piece I put at the top of this post. Even our writings on the blog are an example of how we are organizing elements and principles of texts into our compositions (that is, writing about our readings in posts), and then organizing those posts into a larger composition (the blog itself), and then the blog is also an element in the organization of a larger discussion of queer issues that defines our generation (this is one of many blogs focused on queer issues on the internet, and we hope to tap into that larger community/discussion). It is the interaction between things that makes composition. And that is really the only way to explain things. This is this. Now that is all.


All of the quotations in this post are references to the follow source:
Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” Essay on Poetic Theory. Poetry Foundation, 15 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.


1 Comment

Filed under Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

One response to “Stein and Design: The Elements and Principles of Composition

  1. Pingback: Two Women on the Beach | Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies

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