How does the theme of art mark time and define character in Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?

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Paris during the early 20th Century, along with Germany, was the global focal point of artistic expression, and Gertrude Stein’s irreverent yet revealing Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas captures the milieu of that place and time brilliantly.  Stein, writing ostensibly through the eyes of her longtime companion Toklas, depicts an atmosphere of constant interactions and creativity by some of the most brilliant minds in art and literature.  An early indication that Stein’s narrative – a narrative, mind you, only belatedly revealed to be hers and not that of Toklas – will be heavily influenced by the theme of art appears in the book’s opening pages.  Stein/Toklas begins, understandably, with a first-person narrative of Toklas’ life in San Francisco, where her happy coexistence with her father and brother is rudely interrupted by the earthquake and subsequent fire that would devastate the city – a development to which Stein imagines Toklas’ father responding, “That will give us a black eye in the East,” before rolling over and going back to sleep.  “Toklas” then introduces the figure of the Stein family in such a manner as to establish the dominance of the theme of art in the pages that follow:

“As I was saying we were all living comfortably together and there had been in my mind no active desire or thought of change. The disturbance of the routine of our lives by the fire followed by the coming of Gertrude Stein's older brother and his wife made the difference. Mrs. Stein brought with her three little Matisse paintings, the first modern things to cross the Atlantic.”

Henri Matisse would be one of the seminal figures in that artistic milieu in Paris who, together with Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the noted philosopher Alfred Whitehead, and other such luminaries and intellectuals, characterized the city and Stein and Toklas’ lives.  As the actual author, Stein unfailingly places herself at the center of the action, with a name-dropping intensity that would only, perhaps, be exceeded in later years by the late Andy Warhol.  Note, for instance, the following passage from Chapter Two of The Autobiography:

“This was the year 1907. Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives which she was having privately printed, and she was deep in The Making of Americans, her thousand page book. Picasso had just finished his portrait of her which nobody at that time liked except the painter and the painted and which is now so famous, and he had just begun his strange complicated picture of three women, Matisse had just finished his Bonheur de Vivre, his first big composition which gave him the name of fauve or a zoo. It was the moment Max Jacob has since called the heroic age of cubism. I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at that time, one of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year.”

And, in describing a dinner party at the Stein home to which Toklas had been invited, the “author” describes the scenery, noting the drawings by Picasso and Matisse tacked to a door and the beautiful furniture that adorned the place and, oh, yeah, “that little poor Monsieur Rousseau” was being honored with the hanging of one of his pictures in the Louvre.  “Toklas” next references the prominent place of Stein among this august assembly of artistic talent:

“Miss Stein sat near the stove in a lovely high-backed one and she peacefully let her legs hang, which was a matter of habit, and when any one of the many visitors came to ask her a question she lifted herself up out of this chair and usually replied in french, not just now. This usually referred to something they wished to see, drawings which were put away, some german had once spilled ink on one, or some other not to be fulfilled desire. But to return to the pictures.”

It is Stein’s portrait of the artists, however, that most colors her narrative. Giant figures of modern history are discussed in the most nonchalant manner imaginable by one who actually was an integral part of that environment.  These figures are all humanized, as when the author describes the concentration of artistic talent at that dinner party interrupted by the arrival of the American artist Alfred Mauer and the sudden unwelcome presence of American physician and art collector Albert Barnes:

“He had followed, followed, followed always humbly always sincerely, it was he who selected the first lot of pictures for the famous Barnes collection some years later faithfully and enthusiastically. It was he who when later Barnes came to the house and waved his cheque-book said, so help me God, I didn't bring him. Gertrude Stein who has an explosive temper, came in another evening and there were her brother, Alfy and a stranger. She did not like the stranger's looks. Who is that, said she to Alfy. I didn't bring him, said Alfy. He looks like a Jew, said Gertrude Stein, he is worse than that, says Alfy.”

The private lives of Picasso – whose privacy was doomed to evaporate anyway given his proclivity for womanizing – and the other figures of the artistic and intellectual communities residing in Paris were given considerable exposure in Stein’s narrative, although it was clear that such was the least of anyone’s worries.  Social mores and customs were given free expression in Stein’s book.  When Stein/Toklas notes, in discussing Picasso’s friend Manolo, “the only person in Paris with whom Picasso spoke Spanish,” the prominence of the French language among non-French residents, she places it squarely within the customs of the place and time:

“All the other spaniards had french wives or french mistresses and having so much the habit of speaking french they always talked french to each other. This always seemed very strange to me. However Picasso and Manolo always talked spanish to each other.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a depiction from the perspective of one who was intimately involved in the artistic atmosphere prevalent in Paris in the years before the Great War.  One cannot separate the figures with whom Stein interacted on a regular basis from the larger environment in which they lived.  The theme of art was the theme of the world Stein, and Toklas, knew, and the volume captures that environment quite well.

Read the study guide:
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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