- - Thursday, October 13, 2011

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.

But what has long remained mysterious about the Gertrude Stein story is the period after the outbreak of World War II, particularly during the early 1940s, when she left her precious home in Paris and seemed to have disappeared. It’s the omission of this period from the Stein exhibits that has recently drawn flak from critics, including Web journalist Mark Karlin, who accused both exhibits of glossing over “some shocking historic evidence” in an article posted on left-wing website “Truthout.”

As Jews and lesbians who collected modern art — or “degenerate art,” in Nazi terminology — Stein and Toklas already had three strikes against them when the Nazis rolled into Paris. But instead of fleeing France as many Jews did, Stein and Toklas relocated to a country home in an area under Vichy control, mysteriously evading the usual fate of European Jews, the Nazi gas chambers.

In some respects, Stein’s behavior, as revealed in Ms. Will’s book, was not exactly a surprise. Like Ezra Pound and some other literary modernists, she was a political reactionary who embraced what she viewed as the power, decisiveness and orderliness of Fascist dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini. Further, she despised what she viewed as the increasingly socialistic policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States.

None of this, however, would have been enough to shield her from the Nazis, who detested everything she represented. It appears that she and Toklas were able to save both their art collections and themselves from the ultimate fate that befell so many Jews in Europe through the machinations of Bernard Fay, an anti-Semitic historian (and pre-war French translator of Stein’s work) allied with the Vichy government. Convicted as a collaborator following the Liberation, Fay was in 1946 sentenced by a French court to forced labor for life. After five years, he escaped to Switzerland — his prison break bankrolled by Toklas.

There are no representations, let alone “stories,” in the current National Portrait Gallery show explaining the Vichy interlude in Stein’s life. One label on one exhibit of “Story 4” alludes to the fact she went missing in the early ‘40s — an acknowledgement of an anomaly, but nothing else.

The conspicuous omission is a result at least in part of the fact that “we really don’t have representations of this period to exhibit,” according to Ms. Corn, who frankly acknowledges Stein’s questionable behavior early in World War II.

“We actually didn’t have Will’s book or the benefit of her original research when we were putting this exhibit together,” she says, adding that she finds little to quarrel with in Ms. Will’s study.

Despite the physical exhibit’s silence about this incriminating period, professors Corn and Latimer devote several pages to the Stein-Vichy-Fay angle in their extensive exhibit catalogue, “Seeing Gertrude Stein,” which is available at the museum. The book relates in great detail the apparent disappearance of Stein and Toklas and their rediscovery by a then-enterprising young journalist by the name of Eric Sevareid.

Since specific evidence about this once-hidden area of Stein’s life is now accumulating, Ms. Corn is confident the “whole political story will eventually be revealed.”

In the meantime, the exhibit catalogue, following Ms. Will’s new book, reveals a considerably more complex, and perhaps devious, Gertrude Stein than currently accepted legend would dictate.

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