Illustrating the Domestic Bliss of Alice B. Toklas and
Maira Kalman on Her Illustrated Reissue of
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Maira Kalman, author and illustrator of children’s books as well as a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has illustrated a reissue of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, available now from Penguin Press. Below, she answers a few questions about her process illustrating the famous couple and domestic scenes from the book, and why the stories of Gertrude and Alice called to her.
Why were you drawn to this project?
Maira Kalman: Gertrude and Alice have always had an allure for me. A big love story. Neither one of them could have flourished without the other. They are eccentric, electric, artistic, domestic. Unique in so many ways. Determined. Unapologetically opinionated. The intersection of art and domesticity speaks to me as well—how do you create a grounded home as a jumping off point for your work? That is something that I have sought in my life.
How would you describe your research process? Were there any visual inspirations or moments that surprised you along the way?
MK: There were thousands of photographs to look at. I could paint another entire book or two with ones that I could not use. It includes the entire history of literature/art/music for the entire period of modernism and beyond. They know EVERYBODY. Everybody came to their salon. There were rivalries and liaisons. People either felt Gertrude knew what she was talking about or she didn’t, but either way they couldn’t ignore her.
Have you been to 27 rue de Fleurus? What was your visit like?
MK: I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend bring me to the owners of the apartment. They graciously welcomed me in and served me lemon cake and coffee. The layout is the same, but of course the furniture is all different, and the walls are not lined with Matisses, Cezannes and Picassos. I had the thrilling feeling of being home, as if I belonged. A happy situation.
Given that the book itself is a play on authorial perspective, how did you navigate the question of perspective as you illustrated the story?
MK: It is impossible to say how much truth a memoir delivers. It is the truth as told by Gertrude. There’s no such thing as ultimate truth. Matisse and Hemingway were both annoyed at what she said, but you go on and feel the whole story more than the particulars.
Using Alice’s voice was an inspired device. Alice had a quirky, sharp way of delivering her material; you can see that in reading her cookbooks and memoir. So i think Gertrude did a lot of channeling of Alice, with her own literary expertise.
Much of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas revolves around Toklas and Stein’s apartment, a site of professional collaboration as well as personal intimacy. How do you, as an illustrator, begin to portray the intersection of these spheres in a single apartment?
MK: All you have to do is to look at the photographs from that time. They are rich with detail. Beaton and Man Ray documented them. You cant ask for better visual references. Gertrude and Alice predominate. Even if Alice is a little bit in the background, she is a force.
When I see a photo that I fall in love with, I am happy to paint. When I am creating the scene from my imagination, I imagine myself part of the story. I am inserted in some pleasant way. Not literally. But emotionally.
How grand to be part of that world, from the comfort of my home in NYC.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is available March 3 from Penguin Press.