The focus of major exhibitions currently in Paris and Washington, D.C., and opening early next year in New York City, avant-garde icon Gertrude Stein continues to inspire controversy. Here, author Renate Stendhal weighs in to set the record straight.
With two big traveling exhibitions, Gertrude Stein is having a renaissance. She is also embroiled in a political controversy. Did Stein and Alice B. Toklas survive in Nazi-Occupied France because Stein was in cahoots with Marshal Pétain, the head of the French Vichy Government, whose speeches she began to translate in 1941? Did her close friendship with Pétain’s advisor, Bernard Faÿ, who turned fascist and collaborator during the war, mean that she was a collaborator, too? Did she really want Hitler to get the Nobel Peace Prize?
These accusations are snow-balling in articles, blogs, and a new book about Stein and her “Vichy Dilemma.” There is nothing new about the facts, but Stein is always a welcome target. From the moment a woman—a Jewish, lesbian woman—positioned herself at the birth of Modernism and declared, “I am a genius,” she was attacked and ridiculed. It is a fact, however, that Stein’s avant-garde novel, The Making of Americans, was written from 1902 to 1911, long before Joyce wrote Ulysses (1918 to 1920). With her “word portraits” she was the first to create in language what such modernist painters as Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse were producing in painting.
Irony taken as fact
The bias of the recent attacks shows the most clearly in the Hitler “scandal.” In 1934, Stein was interviewed in the New York Times Magazine. The article points to the “impish” expression on Stein’s face. “‘I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,’ she says, ‘because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.’”
Isn’t this the way Jewish humor works? Stein recommends Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize, just as Freud “recommended” the Gestapo—with the same perfect irony. The Germans had made a condition for Freud’s emigration, in 1938, demanding a declaration that he had been well treated. Freud declared: “Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen.” “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Does this make Freud a collaborator? A Nazi?
Stein was a profoundly apolitical person, coming from an assimilated Jewish family that admired Ulysses S. Grant and George Washington. “Writers only think they are interested in politics,” she wrote, “they are not really, it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics.” She loved to talk about Maréchal Pétain, who was every French person’s hero after saving France in the battle of Verdun, in 1916. Elected prime minister of the Vichy Government in 1940, Pétain’s armistice with Germany again prevented the destruction of France. In Stein’s eyes, Pétain was the great man who would not only keep France safe but lead the country out of the chaos of the Third Republic and restore it to its cherished agrarian and disciplined traditions.
This view was shared by the U.S. Department of State. Washington and Vichy still had diplomatic relations in 1942. In Pétain’s Unoccupied Zone, the Zone Libre, where Gertrude and Alice’s country house was located, American Jews lived freely, especially if—like Gertrude and eventually Alice—they were over 65 years old. Stein’s hope in French-American relations was encouraged when the Franco-American Committee asked her to “translate for her compatriots Marshal Pétain’s messages.”
How could a radical avant-gardist like Stein at the same time be a traditionalist, a conservative, even a reactionary? We could also ask how a radical avant-gardist like Picasso could join the communist party in 1944, after Stalin’s mass murders had become public knowledge in France. How could Breton, Elouard or Frida Kahlo serve Stalin’s agenda by being active communists?
An explanation – in art, of course
A partial answer is found in the Modernist movement itself, which dreamed of extreme political renewal, of rebirth for their respective nations under the leadership of the “great men” of their time. Stein was part of the Modernist paradox. The same paradox can be found in her long friendship with Bernard Faÿ. The gay, Harvard-educated historian and author was highly respected in the States and had greatly helped Stein’s literary career. Nobody has come up with any proof that Stein knew about Faÿ’s activities, his collaboration with the Gestapo to persecute the Freemasons in France. Unlike in Germany, in France three quarters of the Jewish population survived the same way Stein and Toklas did, with the help of friends and neighbors, and often with the help of local French officials who quietly resisted German orders.
These complexities of history are missing in the debate over Stein’s war experience. A particularly interesting omission is the fact that by early 1943, Stein has reversed her position. In her diary-like record of the Occupation, Wars I Have Seen, she is increasingly enamored with the resistance. She has dropped her translation of Pétain and is now clearly anti-Vichy. By contrast to many other writers and intellectuals of her time who idealized “great men” and their extremist doctrines, Gertrude Stein thoroughly changed her mind and said so.
“The Steins Collect”—which presents paintings collected by Gertrude Stein and her siblings as taste-makers in Paris—opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before traveling to Paris. It will open in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum on February 28, 2012. The Washington exhibit, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” runs through January 22, 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
This post first appeared on the site of the Women’s Media Center.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten; public domain as part of the Creative Americans Collection