Gertrude Stein Mania in San Francisco

Gertrude Stein has hit San Francisco like a storm, and the same mania will probably soon affect Paris, New York and Washington D.C. as well.

Why all the fuss? Well, first because of the blockbuster exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is due to close September 6 and travel to the Grand Palais in Paris (Oct 3, 2011 to Jan 16, 2012) and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb 21–Jun 3, 2012). Reuniting the amazing collections of Gertrude,  her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, the exhibit displays some 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books,  including approximately 40 works by Picasso and 60 by Matisse, as well as works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Gris, Laurencin, Picabia, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton. In addition to the exhibit, the SFMOMA and, indeed, the whole Yerba Buena neighborhood have also been hosting a whole slew of film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, cultural programs and performances related to Gertrude and her entourage.

Just a few blocks away from the SFMOMA, at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”, also closing September 6, concentrates more on Gertrude’s life and legacy, exploring her identities as a literary pioneer, a modernist, an expatriate in Paris and the partner of Alice B. Toklas, a celebrity and a muse to artists. Jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to which it will travel after San Francisco (October 14, 2011 – January 22, 2012),the exhibition features some 100 artifacts and artworks, as well as manuscripts, letters, journals and personal belongings. Also included are film footage from Gertrude’s operas and ballets and a documentary film about Alice’s and her life during wartime. Like the SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has also been hosting numerous discussions, events and programs, some of them related to Gertrude’s Jewish and lesbian identities and associations.

In addition to visiting both of these exhibits, I have attended several of the San Francisco events related to Gertrude Stein. One I particularly enjoyed was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Entitled “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and their Circle”, it was a one-woman show with Laura Sheppard, who read from the manuscript of Harriet L. Levy, a San Francisco writer and theater critic who moved to Paris in 1907 with her friend Alice B. Toklas. The show was followed by a lively panel discussion about Gertrude’s Jewishness and her puzzling relationship with Bernard Fay, a gay, anti-Semitic, French academic with ties to the Vichy government who ensured Alice’s and Gertrude’s protection in France during World War II and who was later imprisoned for having persecuted French Freemasons.

During this discussion, much to my amaze, I learned that Gertrude translated a book of Petain’s speeches into English, wrote the Nobel Committee recommending Hitler for the Peace Prize, supported Franco, and hated FDR. And I later read that Alice B. Toklas, following Gertrude’s death, helped finance Fay escape from Fresnes prison outside Paris by selling one or more works on paper by Picasso.

Of course, I loved the art exhibits and seeing all the artifacts, but as a history buff and an author of two books dealing with World War II, Gertrude and Alice’s “murky” past during the war and their association with GI’s following the liberation of France fascinates me. Consequently, I have started doing some research on these subjects, both by searching the Internet and by buying books or taking them out of the Berkeley Public Library whenever they are available—this being rare these days, given the Gertrude Stein mania existing in the area!

I have even written a playlet, a sort of one-woman show (which I performed in my storytelling class at Stagebridge last week) based on a 1945 Life article I quoted in my book French War Brides in America when it was published in 2004.  The story features an elderly, but still feisty,  Gertrude admonishing an audience of GI’s at the American Red Cross Center in Paris in the spring of 1945—just a year before her death from cancer at the American Hospital. Watch for it soon on my website:  http://www.hilarykaiser.com

I love the fact that Gertrude shared my love of Paris and also hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area (she grew up in Oakland), where she is the topic these days of  a lot of lively conversation at dinner parties, owing to these exhibits and to  “Midnight in Paris.¨  But she is certainly a much more complex and puzzling character than the funny and lovable American expatriate that Woody Allen portrayed in his film!