Gertrude Stein: Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art
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.