Art Book Club: December

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein




I once went to a reading of Stein's work at a London theatre and fell asleep. Many of my encounters with her work, dictated by my degree in English, or research on my Agnes Martin book, ended in bafflement. And so I borrowed The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas from my local library with little joy in my heart—though as someone embarking on an interdisciplinary study of biographies and art history it felt like a necessary touchstone. The pleasure was all mine.

Easy to read, though with a smattering of linguistic wordplay for which the author is famous, the book is warm, witty, tongue-in-cheek and fairly grounded. Stein, writing as her partner, Alice B. Toklas, creates a dual biography, which, given their relationship, was a radical approach—it was published in 1933 and it is very transparent that Toklas fulfilled a "partner" role in Stein's life.

Another surprise is that Stein rarely refers to works of art by name or by description, her interest in it less located in individual paintings and more in characters as well as relationships between artists (across media: writing, music etc.). Despite this, the book is still useful for historians exploring collecting practices and the relationships between art collectors and artists.

There are too many brilliant and revealing anecdotes to highlight one here, but a starving Hungarian artist eating morsels of bread (used for erasing pencil lead) at the Académie Matisse—to the horror of the American artists—comes to mind. And it would be remiss not to include at least one extended piece of prose from Stein herself; this one child-like in its simplicity and wisdom:

"Basket although now he is a large unwieldy poodle, still will get up on Gertrude Stein’s lap and stay there. She says that listening to the rhythm of his water-drinking made her recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not."

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© Impresario by Henry Martin