San Francisco has been awash in art this season. Three major shows made the pioneers of modern art hard to avoid: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA)'s "The Steins Collect," San Francisco Jewish Museum's "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," and the de Young Museum's "Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso."
But instead of a wonderful learning experience, the shows were merely pictures at an exhibition -- a lost opportunity to look at the origins and meaning of art. A teachable moment consciously abandoned. By what they knowingly chose to ignore, these shows lied to us.
The Stein shows were the most egregious. In the early 20th Century, during the moveable feast in Paris and during the war in their homes in the south of France, the Stein family had befriended and supported many developing artists as they forged modern art's form. Their support was certainly welcome, though problematic and not without strings. The Steins had the opportunity to collect substantial pieces which became quite valuable.
The Bay Area, as a home of Gertrude Stein and with its sizable LBGT population, seemed an appropriate venue for the celebration of the Stein family collection. Gertrude Stein, and her long time partner Alice B. Toklas, were in one way at least models for out-of-the-closet lesbianism. Sadly, they were not models in other important ways, ways in which the museums conveniently chose to ignore.
Their collection, particularly of impressionists, was certainly dazzling. But all that glitters is not gold. The Stein exhibits left out some of the most salient facts about Gertrude Stein. How was Stein able to keep her magnificent collection intact and thrive in occupied France as a Jew and lesbian while gays and Jews were systematically rounded up and killed, and their possessions, especially art, seized?
Less heroic than her unabashed lesbianism was Stein's longtime support for Adolf Hitler. As early as 1934 she shared her admiration for Hitler in the New York Times Magazine, campaigning for Hitler to be given the Nobel Peace Prize:
"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."
This was not merely an aberrant position or just a championing of Hitler alone. She supported both fascist dictator of Spain Francisco Franco and the Nazi-backed Vichy government of France, comparing collaborationist traitor Marshal Pétain to George Washington. She intervened on behalf of captured Gestapo. Indeed, it was Alice B. Toklas who funded their friend and protector Bernard Fäy's breakout from prison. Fäy was charged with being a Gestapo agent responsible for deporting nearly 1,000 people to the concentration camps in Germany.
Yet the SF MOMA and the San Francisco Jewish Museum chose not to deal with this "complicated" issue. Instead they collaborated just as did Stein, closeting her Nazi sympathies and actions.
Not to be outdone, the Picasso exhibit at the de Young Museum was a model of obscurantism. There was not a single descriptive note to any of the works. I suppose we were even lucky the works were titled. But notes on their meaning, development, relationship, or the artists intent were remarkable by their absence. Unlike museums in Europe, the Barcelona Picasso Museum or the French National Picasso Museum (the very museum from whence these pictures originated), for example, we are given nothing explaining the politics and relationships which suffused his work, his support for the Left in the Spanish Civil War, his deep anti-fascism, his identification with the oppressed and his prominent membership in the Communist Party.
It is almost cruel to view Picasso's work without explanation, for instance his great "Massacre in Korea," his literal homage to Goya's "Third of May, 1808," without so much as a hint of its parentage or reference to the 1950 Korean War mass-killing of men, women and a large number of children by American and South Korean forces. Picasso, one of the most political of artists, has been neutered, shrink-wrapped, comodified and de-contextualized.
So at the end of the exhibitions, we are left with galleries empty of meaning. Three exhibits of stellar paintings that could have opened a window into their times and issues. But three museums without the courage or energy to look at the meaning and development of art. Form without substance...only pictures at an exhibition.