Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967)—wife of literary avant-gardist Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and subject of Stein’s tongue-in-cheek Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—is not much celebrated in her own right. To literary scholars, she is the wifely support system that made Stein’s genius possible; to the broader public, she is the author of a cookbook once famous for its “hashish fudge” recipe. We think Toklas should be touted far and wide as a needlework goddess with a taste for whimsy (beyond just the fudge).
You’ll definitely see Toklas’s name pop up again here at the Fiber Archive—she was a prolific crafter —but today we’ll focus on the real showstopper of her oeuvre: her embroidery collaborations with cubist artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).
At 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein and Toklas’s living room would transform on Saturday evenings into one of Paris’s most exclusive meeting grounds for expatriate artists and writers. In the late 1920s, Toklas and Stein asked Picasso, a close friend and foundational member of the salon, to re-draw his guitar painting onto some canvas mesh.
Picasso had gifted them the small painting a decade earlier, and now Toklas wished to recreate it in thread using petit point, a small-scale form of needlepoint. The resulting tapestry formed the basis for a small footstool. It was followed by two similar pieces: a pair of Louis XV-style armchairs. For these, Picasso again drew onto blank upholstery canvas, but instead of drawing a reproduction of a previous work this time he drew two original, whimsical designs that Toklas then over-stitched with her needlework.
These stunning chairs have received attention from Stein scholars as fixtures in her salon, and from Picasso scholars as examples of his sculptural impulses, but we like to remember the central role of Alice Toklas. For it was Toklas who initiated the project and Toklas who labored over their completion stitch by stitch. This domestic labor of craftwork—slow, repetitive, old-fashioned—often gets overlooked in a culture that prizes originality, genius, and the new. Turning to Toklas’s careful work brings up important (and “petit”!) points about these values. She literally covers over, bit by bit, the work of a modern master and thus leaves her own mark.
Stein once wrote, presumably of Toklas, “If she made a drawn work tapestry she would do something new. But would she. Not at all.”* The stool and chairs co-created by Picasso and Toklas bring up this question of newness. The work of Picasso is generally regarded as insistently new, a hallmark of modern art.
The work of Toklas, on the other hand, is not what most think of as new: it consisted of embroidering, knitting, sewing, and a slew of other seemingly timeless household tasks (not to mention her editorial/secretarial work to assist Stein). This domestic labor and even the art form of petit point would have been seen by Stein and others as ancient. Yet, in putting them together—the modern art and the age-old, home-based craft—Toklas creates a space where the old and the new are provocatively intertwined.
That Toklas was at the core of this creation, even Stein herself was sure. As scholar Ulla Dydo noted in an article for (the fabulous but now-defunct) Nest Magazine, the handwritten manuscript of the above passage reveals the subject to have first been “Picas” before being crossed out and replaced with “she.” Stein was beginning to write “Picasso” but then decided that “she,” presumably Toklas, was the one doing and making. This detail nicely encapsulates the co-creation of the chairs, in which Picasso was the artistic originator but Toklas was the one to over-stitch and ultimately take the place of Picasso in the final, visible pieces. In this mash-up of modern art and ancient craft, Toklas does indeed produce “something new” and, at the same time, “not at all.”
(See our modern take on this project HERE!)
*Stein, Gertrude. Painted Lace and Other Pieces: 1914 – 1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.