IotD: The Unexpected Collaboration of Alice B. Toklas and Picasso

Needlepoint might not be what most think of when they think of modernist art, but we’ve actually featured it here before. Below are two examples of Alice B. Toklas’s needlepoint, taken from designs by Pablo Picasso.

alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chairsalice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 1alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 2

Juliet Clark from SFMOMA has a really nice write-up that prominently features these two chairs, including a lengthy excerpt from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that relates the series of events that led to their creation.

The two chairs, before Toklas transformed them, can actually be glimpsed in the famous Man Ray portrait of the two women in their shared home at 27, rue de Fleurus (Alice is sitting in one of them):

man ray portrait stein toklas

Yet another reason to (re)consider Toklas as an accomplished artist in her own right.


Alice B. Toklas (from a design by Pablo Picasso)
Two armchairs, fabric and wood
Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Man Ray, c. 1922
Gelatin silver print
Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution



more scholarship

I recently uploaded another paper on my account, a polished up and slightly revised version of a presentation I made at the 2010 MPCA/ACA (Midwest Pop Culture Association / Midwest American Culture Association) conference held in Minneapolis, MN.

It’s on Twilight. Yes, the YA vampire series that was all the rage a few years ago.

And why post about such a thing here?

Well, because the whole purpose of the presentation was to consider how many of the preoccupations exhibited on this site relate to this text and the character of Edward Cullen. I briefly outline the history of the vampire as a queer metaphor, contextualize the fetishization of beauty (and marble statues!) in the Victorian “cult of beauty” movement, consider the “sad young man” figure and the prominence of “twilight” in pre-Stonewall representations of gay life as identified in the work of Richard Dyer, and finally the ambiguous on-and-offscreen persona of Robert Pattinson and the nuanced ways his star-text might be interpreted by a contemporary gay audience member. What’s even more fascinating? That I don’t think any of these dynamics were intended by author Stephenie Meyer!

This whole project started off as a bit of an in-joke between friends, and then it turned out to be perhaps the single most warmly received piece of scholarship I’ve yet produced (funny how that works). It’s not at all the paper I would write if I was undertaking it again today, but I still have a great deal of affection for it, which is why I’ve decided to dig it back out after all this time and send it out into the world.

So if interested, take a look at the rather cumbersomely titled That Ever-Elusive Object of Desire: Gay Spectatorships and Male Objectification in “Twilight”.


IotD: George Platt Lynes Needlepoint

George Platt Lynes needlepoint of Jared French design

The design is a copy of his friend Jared French’s painting Elemental Play (1946).

A closer look at the intricate handiwork:

As well as the original version of Elemental Play:

Jared French Elemental PlayPlatt Lynes recreated the overall composition of French’s painting almost exactly, but along with some alteration in the color scheme, there are several fascinating minor divergences as well. Consider, for example, that Platt Lynes added genitals to the male figure on the left—perhaps not surprising considering how closely associated the photographer has become with his erotic art.

In his tripartite biography Intimate Companions David Leddick records that Platt Lynes took up needlepoint during the six year period (1937 – 1943) he lived with Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler in an unconventional ménage à trois arrangement. Leddick also includes a photo of another example of Platt Lynes’s needlepoint, also designed by French (perhaps the subject of a future post.)

A lesser known but nonetheless fascinating expression of the great photographer’s extensive creative oeuvre.

The cushion is currently for sale; price unknown.


George Platt Lynes (from a design by Jared French)
Needlepoint in wool
Source: Kylix Collection

Jared French, c. 1946
Source: The Red List

Works Cited

Leddick, David. Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading



utopia parkway solomon“Straight” biography (ha, ha) is something I very rarely take up in my reading—I prefer memoirs, personal diaries, and journals whenever possible—and it’s even more rare for me to actually read a bio all the way through, opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests. I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, but I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell’s life that I ended up reading the whole thing. Oddly, it’s probably the closest I’ve experienced to a “page turner” in a good while, and frankly, I could hardly put it down.

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon certainly had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. All accounts and analyses of Cornell’s life I’ve otherwise encountered seem to struggle with accounting for his utter unconventionality, and in some accounts he can come off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his “dear Mama,” others reify him as a kind of hermit willfully wandering on the fringes of art and society, and yet others emphasize the creepy, voyeuristic aspect of his life, a man whose largely repressed sexual urges were the engine behind his work as he struggled to dominate, at least representationally, the various female figures he venerated as muses. As Solomon demonstrates, Cornell was an extremely complex individual, and all of the above characterizations might contain elements of truth but nonetheless fail to capture the whole. Her portrait of the artist documents all of the individual facets of personality, and demonstrate how they shift and permutate with even the slightest alteration of perspective.

Cornell emerges as an endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions throughout Utopia Parkway, but to Solomon’s immense credit she does a remarkable job of not simply accounting for these “quirks” but regards them from an empathetic perspective that makes them understandable. This is largely achieved by continuously insisting on contextualizing Cornell’s life and the art that it inspired within larger social, cultural, and artistic movements, rather than even attempt to “figure him out,” pathologizing or even diagnosing such an enigmatic subject (though, perhaps inevitably, the study is not completely free from such impulses, especially in the later sections).

joseph cornellOne reviewer on Goodreads found this book “kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life,” a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell’s life seems anything but—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. Despite any reclusive tendencies, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to to Marianne Moore to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who’s anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, heartbreak and ecstasy in equal ,alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us to constitute the stuff of “REAL living”—especially when it comes to those we consider geniuses or exceptional individuals in some way. Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.*

This probably isn’t the ideal place to start one’s explorations of Cornell’s work—it’s much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to—but an essential resource for anybody who is already a fan.

*I wrote this review long before encountering Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life (2013), but I suspect that this fascinating study would be a very productive place to start such a reevaluation, something I allude to in my thoughts on the book itself.

[This is a revision of a review that was originally posted on Goodreads.]

Works Cited

Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications, 2004. Print.

IotD: Charles Henri Ford Writes Joseph Cornell from Italy

Over the last few days I’ve spent some time digging into the wonderfully expansive online holdings of the Joseph Cornell Papers maintained by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art website. Cornell sustained a lively correspondence with Ford, Parker Tyler, and a number of individuals pertinent to this site, and as the intricate networks formed by the queer modernists is a topic of particular interest to me, I plan to start featuring these visual traces and mementos that offer small, illuminating glimpses into various social connections.

To start off, this lively (and very legible–not always a given!) postcard from Ford to Cornell sent in 1954. Ford’s humorous indication of his “room” in the Italian town of Frascati certainly is in line with his sly, wicked sense of humor:

Charles Henri Ford postcard of Frascati to Joseph Cornell (front)

Charles Henri Ford postcard of Frascati to Joseph Cornell (back)

Deborah Solomon reports in her biography of Cornell that Ford and Cornell “began corresponding in 1939, after Ford wrote to Cornell to propose that they collaborate on a volume of poems and collages.” Cornell was apparently flattered by the suggestion, but “saw little possibility of an artistic partnership” demurring to Ford in a letter due to his “total lack of interest in psychoanalysis and the current preoccupation with sex.” But even if a full collaborative effort never came to fruition, Cornell’s nonetheless provide Ford a whimsical cover for his poetry collection ABC‘spublished in 1940.

The reference to author Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen) in this note is an interesting one, as Solomon’s records that “when Ford gave [Cornell] a copy of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, he inscribed the book: ‘Joseph, these were written for you.'”

Ford’s indispensable published journal Water from a Bucket indicates that he and Tchelitchew (Pavlik)’s time in Frascati stretched into early 1956. I particularly like this uncharacteristically fanciful musing–the sole entry for November of 1954:

I took a terrace walk and saw the most brilliant falling star–I always make the same wish: Love.

A sentiment that seems, quite honestly, much more in line with Cornell’s romantic sensibility than Ford’s bawdier, unsentimental impulses.


General Correspondence: Ford, Charles Henri, 1939-1970
Joseph Cornell Papers, 1804-1986
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Works Cited

Ford, Charles Henri. Water from a Bucket: A Diary, 1948-1957. New York City: Turtlepoint, 2001.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

IotD: Queer Spaces in “A Night-Club Map of Harlem”

In my internet searching I’ve come across this vivid cartoon map of Harlem several times now, but until today I hadn’t really taken the time to look at what is actually depicted. Frank Jacobs gives a terrific and detailed overview of the map here, and explains that it is the work of Elmer Simms Campbell (1906-1971), “the first African-American cartoonist to be published nationally.” In the bottom right corner it is listed as being “engraved and copyrighted in 1932.”

Elmer Simms Campbell Harlem Map 1932

What I was most curious about was whether or not the map gave any indications of a queer presence in the Harlem of the early 1930’s. The historical importance of Harlem to the queer community is well known; as George Chauncey notes in the ever-essential Gay New York, while Greenwich Village “was considered the city’s most infamous gay neighborhood by outsiders” in the 20’s and 30’s, “many gay men themselves regarded Harlem as the most exciting center of gay life” (227). So is this indicated at all in Campbell’s map?

Daniel Crouch Rare Books has a nice high-quality scan of the map which allows for close(r) inspection. As far as my eyes can tell, nothing queer is obviously conveyed, none of the people or places depicted signal queerness of any kind: the patrons are all heterosexually paired, none of the performers or proprietors—except for one major and well-known exception, described below—don clothing or assume gestures that could be considered suspect. A pairing of two men up in the top left corner might be construed as a covert cruising encounter, but the attributed dialogue (“what’s da numbah?”) is revealed in the description at the bottom as a common reference to gambling. In short, Campbell’s representation of Harlem doesn’t seem to offer up any queer secrets.

However, “a handful of clubs catered to lesbians and gay men,” Chauncey writes, “including the Hobby Horse, Tillie’s Kitchen, and the Dishpan, and other well-known clubs, including Small’s Paradise, welcomed their presence” (252). Two of these, Tillie’s Kitchen and Small’s Paradise, are accounted for by Campbell:


Which brings us, finally, to the map’s single overtly queer presence, located literally at the center of Campbell’s map: Gladys Bentley at the piano at the Clam House. Bentley is a fascinating pioneering figure I can’t do justice to here (The Root provides a nice appreciation here though), but, to return once again to Chauncey, Bentley is characterized as “the most visible lesbian” in Harlem at that time, “as famous for her tuxedo, top hat, and girlfriends as for her singing” (252). Here’s how Campbell depicts the notorious entertainer—an imposing and androgynous figure at the piano—alongside a now-iconic photo of her:

According to Chauncey, the Clam House “attracted an interracial audience of literati and entertainers, including many gay and lesbians;” Carl Van Vechten based a character on Bentley in one of his novels. She certainly deserves her own post at some point here at Queer Modernisms, but to close I can’t resist quoting one of her famously ad-libbed songs which she generously adorned with “filthy lyrics” and then “encourag[ed] her audience to join in singing.” As Chauncey records it,  Bentley transformed the standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” into “Alice Blue Gown,” an “ode to anal intercourse:”

And he said ‘Dearie, please turn around!’
And he shoved that big thing up my brown.
He tore it. I bored it. Lord, how I adored it.
My sweet little Alice Blue Gown. (252).

My, my: sounds like a gay ol’ time indeed!

Works Cited:

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994. Print.


renee vivien woman of the wolf coverDuring that great burst of feminist scholarship in the 1960’s and 70’s that set out to reevaluate the traditional literary canon there was a concerted effort to translate the work of obscure turn of the century author/poet Renée Vivien into English. And I’m glad they did. For if Vivien is remembered today, it is less for anything she wrote than for her lifestyle and the legends that sprung up around it: her turbulent affair with Natalie Clifford Barney, the flamboyantly androgynous dress immortalized in now-iconic photographs of the couple, as well as her death at the age of 32 that still remains somewhat of a mystery (though whatever the actual cause it was undeniably exacerbated by alcoholism and anorexia). Sadly, focusing solely on her admittedly fascinating life does a great disservice to legitimate literary accomplishment. 

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

And yet, despite the effort of several prominent scholars and the general interest in that time period and cultural milieu, Vivien has tended to remain a footnote of the period. A major footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Which is not a knock on Vivien or her writing in the least—I immensely enjoyed the various stories collected in this slim volume. But only several stories in it was obvious to me that Vivien is an author who resolutely resists canonization; despite Karla Jay’s resolute attempt in the introduction in spinning these as proto-feminist tales, even she must ultimately concede that “if judged from a contemporary lesbian/feminist perspective, some of Vivien’s work might appear embarrassing” for the reader in search of strong politically and socially progressive sentiments. Instead, these stories take their cues from the Decadent Movement, much more along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s hermetic Salomé (my review here) than The Yellow Wallpaper. Of her immediate peers, Djuna Barnes might be said to be exploring similar terrain—indeed, I was often reminded of Barnes’s own short story collection Spillway and Other Stories—but resolutely resisting literary modernism to an extent that exceeds even the ever-iconoclastic (and similarly underread) Barnes comes at a steep price: these are stories that refuse to slide neatly onto university syllabi. 

The vignettes that comprise Vivien’s various stories—most which strive for a mythic quality, often reworking actual Biblical and/or classical sources—are feverish, hallucinogenic, and, quite often, downright bizarre. The actions of her characters rarely act and react according to any obvious logic, and her setting are a surreal mishmash of Victorian cultural and imperial imagery and stereotypes (one story, for example, is supposedly set in the American wilderness, but revolves around a wild tiger). 

The unabashed irreality of these stories, however, are also their finest quality. They remind me of exotic tropical flowers that can only be cultivated in a hothouse—valued not for their longevity but for the spectacular effect of their short-lived blossoming.

Work Cited:

Vivien, Renée. The Woman of the Wolf, and Other Stories. Trans. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1983. 

Duly Noted #5: Queer Lady Longevity

Romaine Brooks (February 2, 1972 – December 7, 1970) – 96
Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) – 95
Jeanne Galzy (September 30 1883 – May 7, 1977) – 93
Rachilde [Marguerite Vallette-Eymery] (February 11, 1860 – April 4, 1953) – 93
Gisèle Freund (November 19, 1908 – March 31, 2000) – 92
Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) – 90
Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877 – March 7, 1967) – 89
Bryher [Annie Winifred Ellerman] (September 2, 1894 – January 28, 1983) – 88
Solita Solano
 (1888 – November 22, 1975) – 86/87
Janet Flanner (March 13, 1892 – November 7, 1978) – 86
Mina Loy (27 December 1882 – 25 September 1966) – 83
Colette (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954) – 81

Queer modernist ladies tended to live loooooong lives. Was it the French air? Or something in the tea served at The Temple of Friendship??