'Seeing Gertrude Stein': Not the Whole Story; Exhibit Omits New Evidence of a Shameful Chapter in Modernist Icon's Life

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

'Seeing Gertrude Stein': Not the Whole Story; Exhibit Omits New Evidence of a Shameful Chapter in Modernist Icon's Life


Byline: T.L. Ponick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The National Portrait Gallery's new exhibit, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, boasts more than 50 objects and artifacts and 100 artworks created by an international coterie of artists, all of which celebrate and illuminate the life and times of one of the most famous - and enigmatic - American figures in Paris between the world wars.

But there is one emerging story conspicuously not on view in Seeing Gertrude Stein ; namely, the tale of the avant-garde icon's extensive collaboration with the Vichy regime, the Nazi puppet government established in occupied France in World War II.

According to the recently published book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay and the Vichy Dilemma by Dartmouth professor Barbara Will, Stein, an emblematic figure of artistic modernism - and a Jew - actually wrote translations of 32 speeches made by Vichy president and Nazi tool Marshal Philippe Petain, a World War I hero today despised by the French as their own Benedict Arnold.

Seeing Gertrude Stein was originally mounted in San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum and coordinated with a larger exhibit of the fabled Stein family art collection mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Both exhibitions drew substantial crowds in San Francisco during the past summer. Stein's continuing ability to fascinate successive generations of museum-goers is still considerable, drawn as they are to her curious but almost legendary life as a writer, art collector, and, arguably, an important muse to a virtual Who's Who of international artists and writers. An added plus for San Franciscans was the time Gertrude's family spent living in Oakland, across the Bay, during part of her childhood.

The current National Portrait Gallery exhibit's aim is to make use of portraits - both paintings and photographs - along with sculptural representations and other objects, to sketch out the stories of five very different Gertrude Steins, according to Wanda Corn, guest curator of the exhibit, along with her associate curator, Tirza Latimer.

Story 1 follows Stein from her early, nomadic childhood years to her blossoming in bohemian Paris around the turn of the last century. Ms. Corn, a Stanford University professor emeritus, sees Stein, even as a young woman, as a strong individual acutely aware of her image and influence.

Story 2 revolves around Stein's domestic relationship with Alice B. Toklas, as reflected in Pablo Picasso's famous early portrait of Toklas and other images. The relationship matured as Stein reached the height of her fame as an art collector. It was also at this time that her artistic and literary salons, held amid her growing collection of modernist art, became the focal point of the Parisian avant-garde prior to World War I.

The third story illustrates the various groups of friends who became associated with Stein after the war, drawn to her by her support and patronage - at least until she tired of one group and moved onto the next.

The fourth and fifth stories feature iconic images of the later Stein. This was the period when Stein began to push her own experimental writing, preferring to be known as an author in her own right.

Central here was her famous, transcontinental American lecture tour and her collaboration as librettist with American composer Virgil Thomson in their celebrated opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The opera took New York by storm when it opened in 1934 and is still occasionally performed today. The exhibition ends in an exploration of Stein's Legacy in portraits, caricatures, and theatrical and derivative publications.

Taken as a whole, the entire exhibit is a trip back in time to a legendary Lost Generation Paris, where Stein became a singular literary and artistic figure. It's also a reminder of the devil-may-care spirit of a postwar Paris, whose tolerance for nearly every kind of individual or behavior made it a magnet for artists and nonconformists of every stripe, including the gay community, for which Stein and Toklas - cohabiting obviously and openly without any apologies to convention - proved critical role models. …

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