Guillaume Apollinaire - Biography and Legacy
French Art Critic, Poet, Playwright
Biography of Guillaume Apollinaire
Childhood and Education
Much of the early years of Apollinaire Guillaume's life are steeped in mystery. Born Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzki; his Polish mother Angelica, daughter of a Vatican official, did not acknowledge his birth in public records until he was a little over a month old. He was never told who his father was (although he was generally believed to be an Italian officer) and it became the source of much speculation as his reputation grew. This was fueled in large part by Apollinaire's later claim that he was in fact descended from nobility.
A free-spirit, Apollinaire's mother moved him and his younger brother, Alberto, to Monte Carlo in 1887 where she was supported by the men with whom she cohabitated. Despite her lack of motherly instincts, she saw to it that Apollinaire received a privileged education at the Collège Saint-Charles. An unpopular student, he threw himself into his studies and began writing which would be the starting point for his career as a poet. His future role as an art critic was not nurtured in school, however, and his knowledge in this field would be largely self-taught. Of the limited time he did spend in an art class he later stated, "when I recall the drawing class at school, I remember the awful lithographs they used to give us as models - works without artistry by unknown drawing teachers whose solemnity and lack of daring were equaled only by their unskillfulness. Their timid scribbles were enough to impart a distaste for art even to those students who would later come to adore it".
Longing for adventure, an eighteen-year-old Apollinaire obtained a job with a wealthy German family as a French tutor for their daughter. The teaching post provided him with the opportunity to travel throughout Europe for the next four years. It was during this period that he engaged in an intense affair with the family's English governess, Annie Playden, who would later refuse his marriage proposal and move to America to escape his attentions. Apollinaire's heartbreak was such he was inspired to write "Chanson du mal-aimé" ("Song of the Poorly Loved"), widely considered his most important early poem, and a piece that brought playful and bizarre imagery to traditional verse.
Once his tutor position had ended, Apollinaire moved to Paris where he held a series of jobs including working as a bank clerk for six years which he did to support himself as he pursued his writing. After his first few poems were published in local magazines, he decided to change his name to the more dramatic and mysterious Guillaume Apollinaire. At this time he also became a frequent presence in Parisian bars and cafes where he would recite his own poetry to the patrons.
Apollinaire's first foray into art criticism and journalism came through the magazine, Le Festin d'Esope which he helped create in 1903. While the publication ran for only nine issues, it was here that he included his first art criticism, a paragraph that dismissed the more classical French art of the period in favor of the emergent Fauvist style. His engagement with this movement began in part with a chance meeting with Fauve artists, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The three immediately formed a bond in their shared interest in embracing modernity (in both art and literature), and according to author Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire found, "objective confirmation of his ideas coming from artists whose vision was new and alive". The first of what would be a career-long review of artworks and exhibitions, this early writing is testament to his impassioned interest in the world of modern art. He stated, "today, there are only modern painters who, having liberated their art, are now forging a new art in order to achieve works that are materially as new as the aesthetic according to which they were conceived".
Apollinaire became a fixture in the Parisian art world following a meeting with Pablo Picasso that took place in a bar in 1905 and which had been arranged through a secretary named Jean Mollet. Kindred spirits from the start, Picasso introduced Apollinaire to poet Max Jacob who later reflected on their meeting: "the three of us went out, and we began that life of three-cornered friendship which lasted almost until the war, never leaving one another whether for work, meals, or fun". Apollinaire's relationship with Picasso, opened up the art world to him and almost immediately he began writing about the artist. The author Leroy Breunig credits Apollinaire's writing on Picasso in May 1905 in La Plume as being, "the first serious piece to appear on the Spanish painter".
Perhaps Apollinaire's most important contribution to the art world at this time came when he introduced Georges Braque to Picasso in the latter's studio in 1907. The two began working together immediately and would soon after develop Cubism. Apollinaire thoroughly embraced this new movement as everything modernism should be: "Cubism is the art of depicting new wholes with formal elements borrowed not only from the reality of vision, but from that of conception", he said. Apollinaire would go on to publish many articles and provided public lectures on the subject.
It was around this time that Apollinaire began a relationship with artist Marie Laurencin. Picasso introduced the two at an art gallery in 1907, telling Apollinaire, "I have a fiancée for you." Of their instant attraction, Apollinaire stated, "she's like a little sun - a feminine version of myself". Bonded by their love of art and shared family backgrounds of strong mothers and illegitimate births, the two were together for six years during which time Apollinaire wrote in high praise of her art and described how, "purity is her natural sphere; she breathes in it freely". While the relationship did not last, their love was forever memorialized through Henri Rousseau's painting The Muse Inspiring the Poet (1909) which featured a portrait of the couple.
Apollinaire's support for Cubism earned him the reputation of being the champion of the most important artists of the day; he became in many ways a modern-day version of Giorgio Vasari who had done so much to promote the work the Italian Renaissance artists. Apollinaire also began reviewing all the major art exhibitions and salons of Paris including serving as a contributing author for the newspaper L'Intransigeant for four years from 1910. In addition to Picasso and Braque, he helped promote the work of artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse, and Jean Metzinger. According to author Roger Shattuck, "at some stages he produced a short article every day. He discussed everything, from amateur kitsch out of Brittany to the annual official Salon to the most provocative gallery shows". A symbiotic relationship developed between Apollinaire and these artists and Steegmuller suggested that, "if what the painters found in Apollinaire was a friend and a poet doubling as a promoter, what he found in them was what Braque has said - a group of sympathetic personalities: artists of his own age, with talent or genius, who gave him stimulus and the courage to recognize in himself the only living poet he knew with a vision as fresh as theirs". This mutual appreciation is nowhere more evident than in the portraits Picasso and others made of Apollinaire and the articles he wrote in support of their work.
Fully absorbed in the bohemian lifestyle of Paris, stories abound of Apollinaire's exploits including supplementing his income by writing erotica under a false name so as not to damage his reputation. Picasso's one time lover Fernande Olivier described him as, "a mixture of distinction and a certain vulgarity, the latter coming out in his loud, childish laugh. [...] What struck you above all was his evident good nature. He was calm and gentle, serious, affectionate, inspiring confidence the moment he spoke - and he spoke a great deal". According to Steegmuller, Apollinaire also "experimented with opium-smoking, [and even] pretended for more than a year to be a woman poet named Louise Lalanne" in order to review the work of other female poets more freely.
While Apollinaire's reputation steadily grew through the early years of the twentieth century, a single event in 1911 rocked his reputation bringing him both notoriety but also anxiety and depression. On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece the Mona Lisa (1503) was stolen from the Louvre museum. Apollinaire wrote an article about the theft for the L'Intransigeant newspaper in which he described the ineptitude of the museum's security: "the situation is one of carelessness, negligence, indifference". Ironically, not long after, his former secretary Gery Pieret approached Apollinaire showing him two statues he had stolen from the Louvre. Concerned, Apollinaire returned the statues to the museum on Pieret's behalf. Although not connected to the da Vinci theft at all, his connection to Pieret led him to be arrested by police on September 9th under suspicion of harboring a criminal and his potential knowledge about an international art theft gang of which they believed Pieret to be a member.
Friends rallied to show their support for Apollinaire and according to Steegmuller, "petitions protesting his arrest, signed by many artists and writers, were delivered to the police and the investigating magistrate". Of this time, Apollinaire later wrote, "I learned that the Press was defending me, that writers who are the honour of France had spoken in my favour, and I felt less alone". He was eventually released when no evidence could be found linking him to the theft (the Mona Lisa was later recovered in 1913 in Florence having been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian housepainter who believed the painting should be returned to its rightful home).
Of the impact of this event, author Roger Shattuck wrote, "six days in prison both traumatized him and brought a useful celebrity". Anyone who did not know who Apollinaire was before the theft certainly did after. He underwent a period of depression after the incident with his greatest fear, according to Steegmuller, being that he might be, "expelled from France as an undesirable foreigner" (it proved an unfounded anxiety when Apollinaire achieved his life's dream of being made a French citizen on March 9th, 1916).
Taking part in the creation of a new magazine, Soirées de Paris in 1912 helped to buoy Apollinaire's spirits after the da Vinci incident. Important articles about art were included in the publication including writings about Robert Delaunay and his new style of art, Orphism, which Apollinaire felt was the future of modern art. He was also impressed by a new Italian art movement, Futurism, after meeting artists Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini and he wrote a highly complementary introduction about the motivations behind the new style for a Futurist magazine. While Apollinaire admired their ambition, he was possibly hesitant about any movement not born in France and also wrote more critically of the movement and what he felt was its lack of originality, stating, "Futurism, in my opinion, is an Italian imitation of the two schools of French painting that have succeeded each other over the past few years: fauvism and cubism".
1913 proved an important year for Apollinaire's critical reputation. He published what would be his only full-length book, Les Peintres Cubistes, and an anthology of poems, Alcools. According to Steegmuller, the former was "widely referred to as 'the first book on Cubism' [although in reality another book had been published a year earlier]" while Alcools, which would come to be regarded as his masterpiece, featured reflections on his experiences, expressed in unrhyming lines and without punctuation, of life in the cafes and bars of Paris.
The last years of Apollinaire's life were consumed with war. He enlisted in the French army's 38th Artillery Regiment in 1914. According to Steegmuller, "being a foreigner, he was not obliged to enlist. He could have sat out the war in a neutral country, or like Picasso, in France itself; or he could have gone to New York and seen something of his friends Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Albert Gleizes"; all artists he had helped promote through his writings. Instead he chose to defend the country he loved. Ever the wordsmith, of his enlistment he joked, "I so love art that I have joined the artillery".
Apollinaire corresponded with two women during his enlistment (these letters were later published in two famous volumes: Lettres à Lou (1947) and Tendre comme le souvenir (1952)). He had fallen in love with Louise de Coligny-Châtillon ("Lou") following a short affair just before the war. The couple maintained daily correspondence and his letters reveal his attempts to win her back. Apollinaire's letters get more terse, however, during 1915 when his affections had transferred to Madeleine Pagès, a professor of letters at the lycée de jeunes filles in Oran, whom he had met on a train journey while returning from leave. His letters to Pagès move from the courteous to the daring and the couple declared their love for each other in the summer of 1915. Apollinaire and Pagès spent a period of 15 days leave together in December 1915 but following a life-threatening shrapnel injury, Apollinaire retreated into convalescence and refused to receive her visits (his last letter to Pagès is dated November 1916).
On March 17, 1916, Apollinaire was seriously injured after shrapnel splinters became embedded in his temple. Rushed to surgery, the fragments were removed but he suffered additional trauma and later in May had to undergo a second surgery to remove pressure on his brain.
While recovering from his injury, Apollinaire worked with an increased energy. He had, with his 1903 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias), used the term "surrealist" for the first time. The play's first production came in 1917 when it carried the subtitle Drame surréaliste with the notes to the play advising that the term "surrealism" described a brand new style of drama. A year later Apollinaire invented the calligram, an entirely new type of poem which consisted of words arranged in such a way as to create an image that enhanced the meaning of the poem itself. He also continued to write art criticism including a piece about the newly developing art of cinematography. The term "surrealism" also began to circulate, appearing in the program notes for the ballet Parade created by Sergei Diaghilev, Erik Satie, Picasso and Jean Cocteau. It would soon be adopted by a new artistic movement being developed at that time, Steegmuller noted, "Apollinaire had unquestionably invented the term surrealist [and] the surrealists have always esteemed him, and have tended to claim him as one of their immediate ancestors".
On May 2, 1918 Apollinaire married the nurse Jacqueline Kolb, a woman he had met prior to the war. While he could have retired due to his injury, he was not released by the army and instead was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant and given a post in the department of the Ministry of Colonies. It was here that he would have most likely served through to the end of the war but in early November he fell victim of the great flu epidemic of 1918. He succumbed to the illness on November 9 at the young age of thirty-eight. According to Steegmuller, a friend, Louise Faure-Favier, later related the story told to her by his wife that on his deathbed Apollinaire was said to have, "begged the doctor to cure him [and cried] 'Save me, doctor! I want to live! I still have so many things to say!".
A blow to the worlds of art and literature, Apollinaire's death touched many. Perhaps it was Picasso who felt the loss of his beloved friend most profoundly. Steegmuller explains how, "Picasso is said to have received the news of Apollinaire's death while shaving [and] Struck by his own mournful expression, he replaced razor by pencil, and [...] apparently the last self-portrait Picasso ever drew, has been called [...] a 'farewell to youth', and, even more sentimentally, a 'memorial to his friend Apollinaire'".
The Legacy of Guillaume Apollinaire
In addition to his contributions to the field of poetry; Apollinaire left a lasting legacy in the art world. Profound in its impact, he helped to shape the direction of early twentieth century modern art. While some have criticized his lack of formal art education, the power of his words speak for themselves. Through his writings he helped secure the legends of numerous modern artists including Alexander Archipenko, Georges Braque, Paul Cézanne, Giorgio de Chirico, Robert Delaunay, André Derain, Marie Laurencin, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Wassily Kandinsky; and he was instrumental in promoting the key movements of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Orphism, and Surrealism. His impact has been preserved in numerous portraits by some of the very artists he celebrated. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the memorial sculpture Picasso created of his friend in 1959; which is located in the park of the St. Germain des Pres church in Paris.
In addition to a rich body of publications about art and artists, the author Leroy Breunig suggests that in some ways "his reputation in Paris as the champion of modern art was in fact based more on deeds than on published works" and that in addition to introducing Braque and Picasso, it was "he who had helped organize the cubist Room 41 at the Salon des Indépendents of 1911; established liaison between the Montmartre and the Puteaux cubists; lectured at the important Section d'Or exhibit in 1912; [...] baptized orphism and became its champion at a Delaunay show in Berlin; launched and directed the Soirées de Paris, one of the principal organs of the avant-garde before the war; issued a manifesto for futurism; and coined the term surrealism".