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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer of Stein

"There was a woman who used to wash the clothes for the enemy in a kind of way she was an enemy herself, not an enemy who could frighten one but just an enemy and she said the enemies would win because they had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen, all the enemies had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen."
            -Gertrude Stein, Wars I have Seen

We started this week's visit to the Steins Collect with a quick trip up to see Matisse and Cezanne.  The place was flooded with docents so we made a quick exit down two floors to visit the Klee exhibit.  The National Socialists declared Klee's art "degenerate" in 1933, upon which he returned to his birth land.

Und schamt sich nicht (Am not Ashamed)

I have been reading about the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) and Varian Fry's work in rescuing degenerate artists from Europe during the Nazi terror.  According to my New World Dictionary a degenerate person is "one who is morally depraved or sexually perverted."  One who has become "debased morally or culturally."

Hermann Broch, began his masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, while incarcerated in a German Concentration camp.  In it he writes of Virgil on his death bead.  Virgil's thoughts: "nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is.  Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding."

The ERC started with a list of names compiled by friends and colleagues who had recently escaped Europe.  After the Vichy government agreed to hand over any German (any anti-Nazi) on the Nazi's list.  The Americans sent Fry, in August 1940, to evacuate as many of the people on his own list that he could find.  He set about his task, and recorded his experiences in a 1945 book titled Surrender on Demand.

Gertrude and Alice were not among those who received his aid.  Like Matisse they chose to wait it out.  Their experiences are detailed in Wars I Have Seen, one of the most profound of Stein's writings (along with Three Lives).  Her humanity is revealed in her attention to the daily details of survival—especially as two women, alone, in a Vichy France.  She doesn't complain or even name the difficulties of being a Jew and a Lesbian at that time–for Gertrude, I believe, that is facile.  What Gertrude and Alice demonstrate is the undertaking of daily life, there, and anywhere, for two women, where allegiances are not always clear and art shapes every breath.  During this time, like all of the artists I've read about, or read themselves, Gertrude wrote.  She created.  Alice cooked.  Together they found that "you never can tell who is going to help you, that is a fact. . . It always is funny that way, the ones that naturally should offer do not, and those who have no reason to offer it do, you never know you never do know where your good-fortune is to come from.  The most experienced person can never tell, never never never."

Fry is one such man who helped for no reason.  There are many more and there are many that were not saved.  Walter Benjamin, travelling with his manuscript in hand, being only one death by suicide that we all know.

"The one thing that is sure and certain is that history does not teach, that is to say, it always says let it be a lesson to you but it is not at all because circumstances always alter cases and so although history does repeat itself it is only because the repetition is soothing that any one believes it, nobody nobody wants to learn either by their own or anybody else's experiences, nobody does, no they say they do but no body does, nobody does.  Yes nobody does."  (Wars I Have Seen)

One of the most powerful aspects of Gertrude and Alice's lives, for me and Ms. Niki Lee, is that every night Gertrude wrote and every day Alice typed, sewed and kept the house.  Together they devoted each day to art and to artists.  Today most of what I hear is that you can't make a living writing, speaking your own language, cooking and growing your own food, raising your flock, sewing your own clothes, being open— in any way— to something larger than making and spending money.  The madness of art appears when the artist opens him, or her, self to something greater, something beyond what is seen, even by themselves.  There is fellowship among those who attempt to live this out, especially today with the wonderful weapons of hate, apathy and greed.   

Many of Klee's paintings, those left in Germany, were confiscated during the great destruction of art committed by the Nazis.  At this moment, these particular pieces hang on the second floor at the SF Moma.  In honor of combat Veteran Jeff Hillier, master of the reflection in photography, you will find me and Ms. Niki Lee in each photo. 

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.