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. 

June 20, 2009 11:36 AM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

This concise history of France from the occupation in 1940 to liberation in 1944 focuses on the struggle between those who favoured collaboration with the occupying Germans and those who opted to resist.
Roderick Kedward shows how ordinary people experienced the occupation; he examines the politics and ideology of the Victory regime, and he discusses the many different forms of resistance launched from inside and outside France. He particularly emphasizes the changing nature of both collaboration and resistance as the pressure of the occupation intensified, and asks whether France was involved in a civil war by 1944.

Dear John: A friend (encore) sent me your blog, so I can reveal to you that I thought the show was excellent! I first saw it at the Memorial de la Paix in Caen and then saw it again at the NYPL during a lightning visit to NY. Happily the NYPL version had more space as well as more explanation, which I imagine helped those of us who are under 85 and did not live through the occupation. As always on this topic, there are some shockingly bad guys and a few good guys and many with wet fingers measuring the direction of the wind. And since you began talking about pals, one of the most extraordinary things about the writers of this era is how friendship often overcame ideological differences. All best.

Dear John: As a daughter of holocaust survivors who studied voice with Jennie Tourel at Juilliard, this period and subject also intrigues me very intensely. Your admission as a NY Times critic who attended and attends friend's events also intriques me as a PR person. I think one of the most talented curators of exhibitions on this subject is Michael Haas, who also produces recordings for Opera Rara. His exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna are so well done, and he also did one of the best I've ever seen with Leon Botstein on Vienna: Jews and Music 198?-1938. The accompanying booklets and CD's are masterpieces and I'm always excited to learn about such exhibits and events based around this horrific period in history.

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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on June 20, 2009 11:36 AM.

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