The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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FEB 2023 Issue

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s I Always Knew: A Memoir

Barbara Chase-Riboud
I Always Knew: A Memoir
(Princeton University Press, 2022)

We long for artistic lives—for lives “truly lived,” to the fullest experience possible, while always putting creation first. As a culture, and even more as a creative community, we nurture ourselves through these lives—in the disarray we go through, we see models shine in their artistic achievements as well as in their human feelings.

Such is Barbara Chase-Riboud’s life. I Always Knew: A Memoir (Princeton University Press, 2022) is the intimate, profound introduction to a life constantly driven by intelligence, creativity, restless at times, always thoughtful. The book is conceived according to a radically new fashion: a baroque tome, it weaves together the letters the author wrote to her mother over the course of almost forty years—while she was in Europe and her mother, Vivian Mae, remained in the United States. However, the book is no mere collection of letters: they are presented in chapters following certain years or moments in the author’s life. A true rhapsodist, Chase-Riboud writes a retrospective introduction to every chapter, detailing her feelings, these moments in her life, and the overall political and cultural history that presided over these times. As the author writes in her preface, “this is not autobiography, nor biography, nor memoir nor fiction but a strange hybrid mixture of disparate and even contradictory narratives out of which portraits of the two of us emerge, separate yet united and indivisible.”

We cannot help but be amazed by the life of Chase-Riboud. From the very beginning, art is the center of her writing—and, indeed, of her life. When in Italy in the late 1950s, she looked for a foundry to cast her sculptures. She created her first exhibition of drawings. She was in residence in Rome and Athens. Her life as a sculptor and draughtswoman, whose work was exhibited very early on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, appears in full bloom across these pages. We follow the burgeoning of an extraordinary artist.

But Chase-Riboudwas never only a visual artist. She appeared on the cover of Ebony at the peak of the magazine, for many publications, modeled, acted in movies. She is a free woman of her time. The beauty of the book also lies in introducing us to a free life: her loves, her passions, her flings, her awakening as a young woman leading her way into the world. Her gifts as an artist were recognized very early on : I Always Knew provides us with an entry into the life that ran parallel to art-making—a life that is a form of art in its own right. The book is the life of an artist, but it is also the life of a woman: a granddaughter—her grandfather appears many times in the early letters; a wife—Marc Riboud, her first husband and the father of her two sons, was a prominent French photographer; a mother, and a daughter. The intricacy between the roles of mother and daughter comes across most clearly in the descriptions of her sons Alexei and David addressed to her mother: she is at once a mother and a daughter, living the many lives of a woman.

Her life journey could be associated with the many “expats” that came from the United States to Europe—many of whom she knew and befriended. It also connects to the lineage of African American luminaries coming to France to live a free-er creative life—Josephine Baker and James Baldwin both appear in the book. Barbara’s freedom resonates with these lives, and brings their history into a different time—a time of liberation in the United States. Already in the early 1970s, she paid tribute to Malcolm X and to the civil rights movements. The end of the book marks the time of the publication of Sally Hemings—the historical novel in which she brought to public awareness the life of the enslaved mother of Thomas Jefferson’s children. The book became a world phenomenon, selling over two million copies and translated into about a dozen languages. There is something poignant in her description to her mother of the process of publishing the book: the doubts of her editor—a close friend of hers, named Toni Morrison; the interest of a woman she met socially, who began working as an editor at Viking and immediately bought the rights for the book. That editor at Viking was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Her life is filled with unexpected encounters. There is no limit to her freedom, for it is truly hers. She is always the same from the beginning to the end of the correspondence: we feel the same tone, the same intensity, the same candid playfulness in the first pages as we do in the last. Her relation to her mother did not change. She did not change. She simply became more “herself.”

In the late 1980s, Chase-Riboud was a prominent author, both of prose and of poetry. She was a well-respected artist, whose sculptures had been widely exhibited. She lived separately the lives of a writer and of a visual artist, while the flow of her letters shows the oneness of everything she experienced. This ability to lead both lives, in the most material form of art-making (sculpture), as well as in literature, is one of the many reasons why she is such an inspirational figure today. The book is the manifesto of her ability to inspire us: not as a documentation of the past, but as a truly contemporary book. The letters were not intended for publication: they were life told, full of beauty and raw. Now they find their way into a book, “the world is made to end in a beautiful book,” as Mallarmé famously wrote. Here, they do not end: the incrustation of the letters into I Always Knew are made relevant by the stories of life, by the art, by the love of two lives: mother and daughter. Life is art, life nurtures art: those are not separate and do not contradict one another. Why should they?


Donatien Grau

Dr. Donatien Grau is a scholar of 19th and early 20th century art, literature, and culture. He is the author, editor and translator of a number of publications on these and other topics.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues