Maira Kalman, Picasso, Gertrude, and friends on the Terrace, from “The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
You can’t just knock on the door of 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris and expect to get in. One must have an introduction.
A century ago, when writer and art collector Gertrude Stein lived there with her lover, Alice B. Toklas, the door was always answered with, “de la part de qui venez-vous, who is your introducer,” Stein wrote in her bestselling memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). “Everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it.”
Pablo Picasso brought a slim Jean Cocteau; photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced actor Paul Robeson; writer Sherwood Anderson penned a letter so a twenty-something Ernest Hemingway could cross the narrow foyer with its hexagonal terracotta-tiled floor, a pattern of tiny stop signs at the gateway to bohemia. “Tzara came to the house, I imagine Picabia brought him but I am not quite certain,” Stein recalled.
Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall behind her, 1930. Image via U.S. Library of Congress.
Contemporary artist, illustrator, author, and designer Maira Kalman, luckily, knew somebody, too. “I was fortunate to have a friend of a friend of a friend in the apartment, and I went to visit and had tea and lemon pound cake,” Kalman said about about how she was able to get inside the couple’s former apartment (and not just pause at the plaque outside 27 rue de Fleurus). “Actually, it was coffee and pound cake,” she corrected herself, every detail still lemony bright. Kalman was tracing Stein and Toklas’s footsteps so that she could paint scenes of their life together, for a new illustrated edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (available March 3rd).
She went to Fouquet (the patisserie where Stein contemplated buying a Cézanne over honey cake and nut candies), the couple’s summer home in Bilignin, and their Parisian apartment— where modernism spent Saturday nights, hosting artists like Juan Gris and creative frenemies Henri Matisse and Picasso.
Bedroom at 27 rue de Fleurus. Courtesy of Maira Kalman.
“Of course, everything has changed, the furniture has changed. But the place hasn’t changed,” Kalman recalls. “It was, exactly, the rooms as they had them. And so it was just fantastic to sit there and think, ‘Well, Matisse sat here. Picasso sat here. Hemingway sat here. Fitzgerald sat here.’ You know, it just goes on and on.”
Kalman—who saves visual bric-a-brac on her iPhone as inspiration for her vibrant paintings of sinks, abandoned chairs, and girls standing on lawns—now has a photo collection of the legendary apartment that was once lined to the ceilings with one of the finest modern art collections. But unlike other artists who managed to get past the foyer (maybe hoping to convince Stein to buy a painting, or hobnob with Cubists), Kalman isn’t after Stein for her art world connections.
“I’ve always loved Gertrude and Alice,” she said of her long-lasting crush on the two. “I’m besotted by them.”
Maira Kalman, Portrait of Alice, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
Maira Kalman, Gertrude sleeping under a tree, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
Kalman has had a black-and-white photo of the creative power couple in her New York City living room for years, as though they were artistic ancestors she never got the chance to meet. Two bookshelves of her home library are dedicated to them, and she keeps photo files of the pair, too. She has a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which she reads more for Toklas’s description of smoking cigarettes to recuperate from butchering fish than the bizarre recipes themselves. (Kalman imagines hosting dinner parties where the menu is prepared entirely from Toklas’s cookbook, though her hashish fudge might be difficult to serve in certain states.)
“It’s not that Gertrude was the creative one and Alice was the cook, though that’s how it looked,” Kalman said. “There’s a tremendous amount of love of creativity between two people, and they just, they had it. From the first minute they met.”
Maira Kalman, Isadora Duncan, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
Stein and Toklas appear in quite a few of Kalman’s many book projects. In a recent cookbook she co-authored, Cake (2018), the caption under an illustration of them sitting at a desk reads: “Every Sunday they ate a lemon pound cake and made plans for the week.” She’s on a first-name-basis with the couple’s poodle (Basket) and added a portrait of Stein and him to her book, Beloved Dog (2015). Kalman also designed sets for a 2000 production of Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, filling the proscenium with her words written in her own signature handwriting.
Kalman adores Stein and Toklas, and when an opportunity arose to illustrate the Autobiography (her publisher is the original publisher of Stein’s memoir), she leaped. “It didn’t take more than five seconds to think, ‘Of course, this is a wonderful project,’” she recalled.
The illustration project planted Kalman unapologetically in Stein and Toklas’s world, giving her an excuse to paint moments of their lives with the Matissean colors that graced the couple’s walls—and tint Kalman’s work, in general. She pored over photographs of the pair and the people in their circle, picking her favorites to punctuate the book.
Maira Kalman, Andre Derain and Alice Princet, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
Maira Kalman, Cezanne and Pisarro, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
“You look up all the people and say: ‘Ooh, she looks good. He’s not that interesting.’ And just keep going through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images, until you find the ones that you love,” Kalman said. “It’s really falling in love with images, wanting to paint them.”
But once the book’s layout hit 300 pages, her publisher cut her off. Kalman said she could absolutely do a whole other book with the photographs she wanted to paint, but didn’t have room for in this edition. At the same time, she didn’t want her illustrations to consume Stein’s paragraph-length sentences and descriptions that are as complex as they are seductively simple. “I want there to be air in it, so that you go through it and you’re not overwhelmed with imagery,” she said. “And the captions from the text are very short phrases, they’re not full sentences most of the time. So there’s a lightness to it, and a kind of flutter of something.”
When Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she purposefully set out to write a bestseller—and she did. Now, with the addition of Maira Kalman’s illustrations, it could be a bestseller again (much in the way that her illustrated edition of William Strunk and E.B. White’s classic writing guidebook, The Elements of Style, became the best-selling edition of that title after it appeared in 2005).
Maira Kalman, Knole, from “ The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas,” 2019. Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.
But what would Mademoiselle Stein think? The discerning aesthete was notoriously unsure, at first, about the portrait Picasso painted of her soon after they met. The young artist made her face look mask-like, but brushed off any criticism by saying that “everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will,” Stein recorded in the Autobiography.
Kalman, though, thinks Stein would have liked the portraits she painted of her for this book. “She would have told me the truth, whatever that was,” Kalman laughed. “But I’m convinced that she would like the whole thing, she’d be amused. She had a tremendous sense of humor, and enjoyed herself, and laughed. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.”