When I have occasion to speak to artists, I often ask them about the contents of their bookshelves. I’m a bit of a fiend about this, I’ll admit. I want to know which books are most important to their work and I want to know which books they go back to time and time again for guidance and I’m also interested in knowing what they read for pleasure. Many of them mention Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting (Stove Praire Press, 2004) and many of them mention Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color (Yale University Press, 2006), which was recently released in revised and expanded form. And many of them mention art books on artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne. It strikes me that you can find all three of these artists in Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which has been published in various forms by various publishers for seventy years. (I have the paperback version issued in 1993 shown here.) It’s a remarkable book.
Though written by Stein, The Autobiography is told from the perspective of her lifelong companion Alice B. Toklas, and it describes their lives together in Paris during the early 1900s. You’ll meet Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne as unknown artists—Stein and her brother Leo were among the first to collect their work—and other artistic greats-on-the-make such as Gris, Seurat, Rousseau and Braque. (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway also make invigored appearances.) The cast of extraordinary individuals is seemingly endless—what a life!—and they all gather at Stein’s salon on Saturdays.
I’d recommend spending a little time in Stein’s salon to anyone, if only for the palpable sense of possibility you’ll find there. Every time I read the book, I come away feeling expansive—I want to write or paint or run or drive or simply become witness to something altogether new.