Between Collaboration and Resistance
That's the title of an exhibition on view for a few more weeks at the main New York Public Library, the one with the stone lions out front on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. I find that in my dotage I do more and more things cultural because friends are involved. I read novels by friends. I go to the opera productions directed by the sons of friends, and musical performances classical or jazz or pop sung or played by friends. I go to art exhibits by friends or organized by friends. When I write about them, even with "full disclosure," I get accused by editors (at the NY Times, when I wrote an arts column) or loved ones of dreaded self-referentiality. But I like the personal connection.
In this case -- before I get to the library friend link -- an ancillary word about the Times having long since appointed Ed Rothstein as its critic for non-artistic museums and exhibitions. This was one of the smartest ideas that the Times cultural editors - whoever they were when the decision was made -- have come up with in years, for two reasons. One is that there had been an awkward gap in the paper's coverage of such events, which consume a lot of money and effort and make up a big part of the museum experience but which weren't really covered by the fine-arts critics. And two, it found the perfect niche for Rothstein, who had sort of kicked around the Times cultural department, as beatless critics tend to do, and who now has a field that's all his own and that perfectly suits his manifold interests.
Ed actually did review this show on April 25, but the real friend connection to it is Robert Paxton, listed as guest co-curator. Paxton is a now-retired professor of French history at Columbia, but as a young faculty member he taught a course in French historiography that I took as a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1960's. Met a lifelong friend in that class, but I've also remained friendly with Paxton over the decades. World's Greatest Expert on Vichy France, which is why he was brought in to organize this show (and co-write the catalogue) from largely French archival material.
The show itself, after all that self-referential throat-clearing, is richly textured and compulsively involving. When the Nazis steam-rollered the French, they eventually occupied the northern half of the country, roughly, including Paris, and turned over the rest to a puppet regime led by Marshall Petain, a right-leaning hero of World War I. The exhibition is subtitled French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation, but it covers all of France and not just literature, though that's the focus.
For those us us fascinated by that era -- had I remained in academia, my field of specialization would have been domestic life in Germany 1933-45, especially cultural life -- this show's amplitude of exhibits and wall texts and photographs and film just sucks one in. To see famous figures from French cultural life and discover more about their involvement (Germaine Lubin, the great Wagner soprano) or giddy complicity (Cocteau, who liked the parties) or more ambiguous activity (Sartre) or clandestine resistance (Marguerite Duras).is revelatory, like peering into a secret family trunk filled with incendiary letters and documents. I wonder what yet another friend, Alan Riding, who succeeded me as the Times's Paris-based European Cultural Correspondent and who last I heard is working on a book on cultural life in Paris during the Nazi period, would think of it.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.