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Gertrude Stein: Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art

May 1, 2012 9:25 am 10 comments

The Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City plays host to the Gertrude Stein exhibit. Photo: FCB981.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York, in its current exhibit on the collection of Gertrude Stein and her family, has made a decision to suppress the ugly truth about her collaboration with Nazism during the German occupation of France.  Anyone walking through this beautiful exhibit of the Stein family’s exquisite tastes in art would learn nothing about Gertrude’s horrendous taste in politics and friends.  Stein, a “racial” Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered.  The exhibit says “remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact.”  It adds that “Bernard Fay, a close friend…and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them.”  That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened.  Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason:  Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.

According to a new book entitled Unlikely Collaboration:  Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay and the Vichy Dilemma, by Barbara Will, Stein publicly proclaimed her admiration for Hitler during the 1930s, proposing him for a Nobel Peace Prize.  In the worst days of the Vichy regime, she volunteered to write an introduction to the speeches of General Phillipe Petain, the Nazi puppet leader who deported thousands of Jews, but who she regarded as a great French hero.  She wanted his speeches translated into English, with her introduction, so that Americans would see the virtues of the Vichy regime.  In that respect she was like other modernist writers, such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot who proudly proclaimed their pro-Fascist ideology, but Stein’s support for Fascism was more bizarre because she was Jewish.

Stein’s closest friend, and a man who greatly influenced her turn toward fascism was Bernard Fay, who the Vichy government put in charge of hunting down Masons, Jews and other perceived enemies of the State.  Fay was more than a mere collaborator as suggested by the Met exhibit.  He was a full blown Nazi operative, responsible for the deaths of many people.  After the war, when the horrendous results were known to all, Gertrude wrote in support of Fay when he was placed on trial for his Nazi war crimes.

Perhaps an artist should be judged without regard to his or her political affiliations or actions, but the Met exhibit purports to present the story of the Stein collection and of Gertrude’s life in France.  It ends with a misleading description of her activities during the war years.  It would perhaps be different if this were only an exhibition of the Steins’ art collection rather than a biographical account of her family’s life in France.  By withholding from the viewers an important part of the truth, the Met is engaging in a falsification of history.

Why would the Met do that?  Presenting a complete picture—large warts and all—and allowing viewers to judge for themselves as to what to make of her collaborations, would be far more interesting and educational.

When museums put on exhibitions, they often tend to glorify those whose work they are exhibiting.  Sometimes they fail to convey an accurate historical picture.  What the Met is doing  is different.  By offering a false explanation of how Stein and Toklas “remarkably” survived the Holocaust, while living in a town from which dozens of Jewish children were deported to death camps, the Met has distorted the history of the Holocaust and failed to point a finger of blame at collaborators, such as Stein, who made it possible.

The Met is a great museum.  I love to go there.  But when I visited the Stein exhibit, I was disappointed.  There is still time for the Met to make it right.  It should have a statement describing, fully and accurately, Stein’s collaboration.  And it should offer for sale at the exhibition shop Barbara Will’s book, exposing Gertrude’s pernicious collaboration, alongside the books currently on sale, all which glorify the Steins.

Before publishing this article, I wrote to the museum inquiring about the omission and proposing some changes.  They justified the omission by arguing that the exhibit was primarily about the Steins’ art and not about Gertrude’s politics, but they agreed to sell Barbara Will’s book.  They have not yet responded to my request to include in the exhibit itself some information about Gertrude Stein’s ignoble role in the Nazi occupation of France.  Unless they do, those who see the exhibit will continue to be misinformed about the ugly truth of a woman with beautiful art.

10 Comments

  • Only Jews and Alan Dershowitz types are allowed to comment here, because otherwise, the truth might come out that all this writing about Gertrude Stein is so trivial as to be worth nothing. America has been screwed over by the likes of the people who are commenting here — all Bolsheviks in their own way.

  • Henry Lowenstein

    Thank God for Alan Dershowitz. His clear delineation of right and wrong is always a pleasure to behold. He is a protector not only of Jewish history, but of of history. I have read a half dozen books about Gertrude Stein and her family, and study her writing style under Jewish professors at Columbia when I was there many years ago. They could tell you how many lumps of sugar she took in her tea, but never mentioned the fact that she was a Nazi. It allows us to understand Stein’s often cruel remarks to people, her manipulation and humiliation of visitors under the guise of her pseudointellectualism, and it also allows us to see that it was really her brother Leo, and sister-in-law Sarah who were the real intellectuals and art patrons. Gertrude was nothing more than evil, cloaked in a nasty secret–the worst of which I believe we do not yet know.

  • jeter l’opprobe sur une femme qui a tellement fait vivre tellement d’artistes, et contribué à la gloire de la culture française , est une honte ! cet article est de la désinformation, sinon un relent d’antisémitisme raffiné et laid !

  • I also forwarded Prof. Dershowitz’ article to the Met, and in particular, to Dr. Harold Holser, the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at the museum. He appears frequently at the NY Historical Society (of which I am a member, as well of the Met), and though I didn’t have his direct email address, I send it to the Met webmaster page which is open for communications. We’ll see if it is forwarded to him, and if he responds in any way. I would suggest that others who feel the same way take a similar action (and kudos to Prof. Dershowitz for bringing this to our attention). I enjoyed the Stein art collection, but found her personally to be an unattractive, somewhat digusting character, an opinion that was apparently shared by more than a few Parisians when she lived there. And this was before reading Dershowitz’ comments about her attitudes towards the Nazis. There is a long running debate about how much one should ignore the political opinions of artists who have ugly aspects to their characters, such as the many fascist writers who supported the Nazis. For myself, I think people need to have a full picture of such artists to properly judge their work in context. I think the Met has done a a disservice to the public on this score with the Stein exhibit, and their rationalization is nothing less than a copout.

    • That’s Dr. Harold Holzer (with a “z”, not “s”).

    • Only an imbecile would believe that Stein was a Nazi supporter.

      Here is her actual statement.

      “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany.”

      Only an idiot would not see the irony, and sarcasm.

      • Henry Lowenstein

        Only an idiot WOULD see irony and sarcasm in this statement given the fact that she supported these very views in over a dozen other comments. How on earth did a Jewish lesbian survive the holocaust in comfort, with her art collection untouched, when people with a fraction of her notoriety–even those who had served Germany in the first world war, were carted off to their death–their art scattered to the winds. Any in-depth review of Stein’s personality, as outline, for example in Brenda Wineapple’s “SisterBrother” can clearly see that she was evil and damaged on a profound level, and her belief in Hitler and her self-hate, was evident in everything she did. In the end, even her brother as much as stated this. Leo, by the way, hid in Italian basements while Gertrude dined on French foi gras.

    • Ellen Greenberg

      I agree 100%. Gertrude Stein and her family may have had wonderful artwork however, their thinking and their politics as Nazi sympathizers and supporters leaves one with a very bitter taste in their mouth. I don’t care how beautiful their artwork is. If they were responsible for the murder of ONE JEW, all the artwork, etc. means nothing. They would be considered by me and many others, on a scale with Hitler himself.

  • Wow. Excellent. I’ve been planning to go see the exhibit, it has been receiving publicity for months preceding the opening. I will immediately contact the Met with a link to this article. Adding the book at the gift shop is a relatively simple and effective rectification. Thank you for this info.

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