Guillaume Apollinaire was born Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki in Rome in 1880. His mother was Polish, and he never knew his father. However, there were rumors that he was a prelate or a cardinal, and his friend Picasso often joked that Apollinaire was, in fact, the son of the pope. In his adolescence, the French poet settled in Paris and changed his name to Guillaume Apollinaire. His brief career influenced several avant-garde art movements, including Cubism, Orphism, and Surrealism. He also served on the front line in the First World War but was soon discharged after being wounded by shrapnel. He died aged just 38 in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Guillaume Apollinaire: The French Poet’s Beginnings
American writer Roger Shattuck describes Guillaume Apollinaire as “successively a clown, a scholar, a drunkard, a gourmet, a lover, a criminal, a devout Catholic, a wandering Jew, a soldier, a good husband.”
While living in Paris, Apollinaire became a partisan of modern art and became acquainted with various art cliques, though he was never strictly affiliated to one group. Instead, he moved freely between different circles. The French poet was profoundly interested in reenergizing art to suit the present time, one of a period of modernization in the arts, science, and technology.
During his career as a writer and critic, he developed a reputation within Parisian art circles as a raconteur, an eccentric, and a prankster. He cultivated his own mythology and had “a huge gaiety and vitality…and an equally strong but slightly muted note of tragedy and despair” (Shattuck).
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In 1911, Apollinaire was arrested under suspicion of aiding and abetting in the theft of the Mona Lisa and of several Egyptian statuettes which had gone missing from the Louvre. His friend, Pablo Picasso, was later arrested, though they were both eventually released without charge.
The Invention Of Cubism
Apollinaire is attributed with coining the term Cubism, which was an initiative of avant-garde painters living in Paris. Cubism began around 1907 as a unique art movement. It created new representational freedoms, which were mostly invented by Pablo Picasso, and further explored by other painters such as Jean Metzinger.
Apollinaire was a member of the so-called “Salon” Cubists. They exhibited their works primarily at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, both of which were non-academic art galleries in Paris. By contrast to the other Cubist group, to which Picasso belonged, the Salon Cubists were more in touch with public discourse. The group included painters, including Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger, and writers Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon.
Cubism made use of geometry and abstraction, particularly the non-Euclidean of the so-called ‘Fourth Dimension.” Apollinaire believed that Cubism was an attempt to make a sublime art of “transcendental idealism” that was in harmony with the scientific innovations of the day. Moreso, Cubism attempted to move beyond subjective experience and towards an integral truth.
Orphism: A Brief Offshoot Of Cubism
Apollinaire soon became the leader of the Parisian avant-garde in the early 1900s, and his writings strongly influenced the short-lived art movement, Orphism. The movement took its name from the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician, poet, and prophet who had the magical ability to charm living beings and inanimate objects (even stones) with his inspired singing and bewitching music from his golden lyre.
Orphism was new at the time because it sought to unify “hermetic and classical tendencies” with “modern images and experiences” to create “a simultaneous projection.” In 1911, Guillaume Apollinaire released Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d’Orphée, a collection of thirty short poems, which included woodcuts by Raoul Dufy. The poems concern semi-mythical animals; and Orpheus appears in four of them.
The term Orphism was coined by Apollinaire around 1912. In the beginning, it was used to distinguish between Orphic and Cubist work. In painting, Orphism was first developed by Robert and Sonia Delaunay in 1912. Some of the characteristics of Orphism include a predominant use of light and vibrant color, the celebration of the imagination, and the creation of new, abstract forms.
Allegedly, Apollinaire’s motto was J’Emerveille, or “I marvel,” which was a chief characteristic of Orphism in that it sought to engender surprise in the spectator and was meant to serve as an example of the creative faculty in action. According to the Tate Museum, Apollinaire used the term Orphism to establish a connection between painting and music, where painting draws on the freedom, fluidity, and sense of harmony already inherent in music. However, Orphism was short-lived, as it was soon absorbed into larger art movements such as Cubism and Surrealism.
How Surrealism Got Its Name
Cubism was a precursor to Surrealism, and Apollinaire developed many motifs and freedoms found in the Surrealist movement. In a letter to André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, Jacques Vache wrote, “[Apollinaire] marks an epoch. The beautiful things we can do now!”
Guillaume Apollinaire believed that the true artist could only reach unique personal rationality following a process of purification. This would involve deep introspection and personal insight, which would affect a transformation of the visible world so that it would appear new. Essentially, according to Apollinaire, the painter must be aware of “his own divinity,” which would then evoke the spectator’s sense of his or her own divinity.
In 1903, Apollinaire wrote a play entitled Les mamelles de Tiresias: Drame surréaliste (The Breasts of Tiresias), which was then staged in 1917. The term Surrealism comes from this play, as a way that Apollinaire describes the new drama in the sub-title. The term Surrealism was later taken up by the group of artists and writers we know now as the Surrealists. The play served as a rudimentary model for Surrealist ideas, including the questioning of convention and the free association of ideas.
Les mamelles de Tiresias: Drame surréaliste is based on the Greek myth of the clairvoyant, Teiresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years. In Apollinaire’s version, the French poet tells the story of Thérèse, who becomes a woman in order to obtain a position of influence among men, with the intention of unsettling customs and establishing equality among the sexes.
Guillaume Apollinaire’s Poetics
As both a French poet and an art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire was interested in developing new forms, concepts, and ideas that challenged the prevailing bourgeois Parisian art world. Before establishing himself as a poet, he wrote literary journalism, edited works of erotica, and even wrote a pornographic novel, which was later lost.
Despite his short life, Apollinaire was a versatile and prolific writer who tackled many forms, including plays, essays, short stories, and journal articles. It was, however, his poetry that secured his place as an influential voice of the early twentieth century. His poetry collection Alcools was published in 1913 and helped establish his reputation as a poet.
In his early twenties, he was influenced by Symbolist poetry, thus making his own replete with symbols as well as full of deeply lyrical and dramatic cadence. His work often disregards punctuation and employs alternate end-rhymed couplets. His style is lucid, modest, and sensual, often recounting anecdotes and imagery from his life in Paris.
Here is an extract from one of his poems, Vendemiaire (Vintage Month, from the calendar of the French Revolution; marking the grape harvesting season):
Men of future time remember me
I lived at the time when kings were perishing
They died in quiet sadness one by one
And thrice courageous turned into conjurers
How beautiful Paris was at the end of September
Each night became a vine whose leafy limbs
Spread splendor over the city and up above
Stars pecked in the walls by the drunken birds
Of my fame awaited the vintage of the dawn
One night walking along dark deserted quays
On the way back from Auteuil I heard a voice
Which gravely sang with measured silences
So that the clear lament of other distant voices
Might reach the banks of the Seine
I listened long to all those songs and cries
Which woke in the night the song which Paris sings
Guillaume Apollinaire was a deeply inventive, abundant, and daring French poet who helped shape several of the most significant art movements of the 20th century. Aside from his writing, his close friendships with Picasso, Metzinger, and other Cubist painters injected vitality into the Parisian avant-garde and helped permeate new ideas and concepts at a time when everything seemed to be in flux.