PARIS — On September 7, 1911, French police arrested poet Guillame Apollinaire for stealing the Mona Lisa. Apollinaire hadn’t actually taken the iconic treasure; however, a few days prior to his arrest, he had attempted to anonymously return a pair of ancient Iberian busts stolen for him and Pablo Picasso by their associate, Géry Piéret. Picasso, who modeled the central figures of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” on the bust Piéret procured for him, was also brought in for questioning. Miraculously, neither the painter nor the poet was charged with receiving stolen goods. If they had been, their status as foreigners in the French Republic would most certainly have resulted in their deportation. Luckily, lack of evidence and pressure from the Parisian art and literary establishments forced the police to release Apollinaire six days later — thereby consigning the episode to one of the wilder footnotes of art history rather than to one of its major chapters.
These infamous busts are among the more than 305 paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from Apollinaire’s personal and professional life that are on display in Apollinaire, le regard du poète (or “Apollinaire, the Vision of the Poet”) at the Musée de l’Orangerie.
Born Wilhelm Apollinairs de Kostrowitzky in Rome in 1880, Apollinaire was the illegitimate grandson of a Polish nobleman in the service of the Pope. In France he came into writing, first in the south, where he spent his adolescence, and then in Paris, where the young poet spent the first decade of the 20th century struggling to support himself with a series of odd jobs, including as a bank teller, tabloid journalist, and editor of a volume of “erotica” (read: pornographer).
An early champion of extra-European and Post-Impressionist visual art, Apollinaire published the first-ever body of critical writing about Cubism, Méditations esthétiques, les Peintres cubistes, in 1913. Work by artists that Apollinaire talks about in this seminal text make up the nucleus of the show, which explores the poet’s relationship to the Parisian avant-garde, from his first texts in 1902 to his untimely death from Spanish flu in 1918.
A room modeled on the interior of his apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain reveals an eclectic mix of military memorabilia, African figurines, theater posters, and circus puppets. The items expose bits of both Apollinaire’s personal history and taste for aesthetic alterity. The circus paraphernalia in particular points to the poet’s friendship with the playwright and provocateur Alfred Jarry, whom he met in 1903 and who was responsible for bringing the young poet into the bohemian milieu of the circus and vanguard theater.
Another room, titled after “Méditations esthétiques,” presents the work of the artists Apollinaire discusses in the text: Picasso, Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Robert Delany, and Marcel Duchamp. Together, this impressive group makes for a stunning installation, however Apollinaire’s art writing itself leaves much to be desired. For instance, a review in which Apollinaire compares the performance of le Coq d’or by the Ballet Russes to Italian Futurism is perplexing, especially after examining Natalia Goncharova’s costume designs (there are eight on view in the exhibition’s second room), which evoke more the bright colors and patterns of Matisse; the figures invented to fill them suggest more the disproportioned bodies of Rousseau’s figures than the sweeping geometries of Gino Severini or Boccioni.
Similarly, in the chapter of Médiations devoted to Marie Laurencin — an artist with whom Apollinaire had a turbulent five-year affair — the poet is unable to comment insightfully beyond the occasional mention of the “grace and charm” of her “feminine arabesques.” The writing is awkward, especially in the middle of the chapter, where Apollinaire inexplicably interrupts his own analysis to devote the next several pages to a description of Rousseau’s work. Add in the fact that Laurencin’s slender, reduced forms, while indeed enchanting, constitute a style that is anything but Cubist, and we are left with a graphic affirmation of the cliché that love is blind.
On the other hand, these gaffes and incongruities can feel like real missed opportunities, especially when one considers that Goncharova and Laurencin are among the few women to be found anywhere in the Apollinaire narrative. The curators revealingly excluded Laurencin from the room dedicated to Médiations, but otherwise play down the limits of Apollinaire’s art writing, preferring to focus on his role as a loyal friend and impresario for the many artists in his entourage.
Portraits of Apollinaire are the most present index of friendship, with at least one in each of the show’s seven galleries. The portraits capture the poet in a variety of states. An etching by Louis Marcoussis shows him behind bars after his arrest. Metzinger’s “Study for the Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire” portrays him seated at a café with a pipe in his mouth. Two group portraits by Laurencin place Apollinaire at the center of his cortège, Picasso (with whom Apollinaire enjoyed a particularly intense fellowship) at his side. A small drawing by Picasso depicts the poet in profile, his head wrapped in a bandage. The latter image is echoed by several anonymous photographs that show Apollinaire in his military fatigues, his head encased in gauze after a piece of shrapnel pierced his helmet on the front lines of the First World War.
Within a year of his head injury, Apollinaire joined the staff of a number of vanguard literary journals, wrote and produced the play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and coined the term “sur-realist.” Apollinaire it seemed had entered into a soothsaying phase. In November 1917, he gave a lecture on “L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes” (“The new spirit and poets”) in which he predicted the importance of new technology, particularly “cinema and phonography,” in the future of the arts.
In the final year of his life, Apollinaire married Jacqueline Kolb and inaugurated an innovative genre of poetry that blended visual and textual elements in his collection Calligrammes — two of which, “Il pleut” and “La colombe poignardée et le jet d’eau,” are displayed in the first room of the exhibition. Affixed to the wall with vinyl lettering, these poems rub shoulders with Gris’s “Man in a Café,” a Yourbi fetish statue, and a “Harlequin” bust by Picasso — much in the same way that their author might have installed them.
The final section of the exhibition explores Apollinaire’s relationship to Parisian gallerist Paul Guillaume. Their correspondence, published for the first time on the occasion of the exhibition, reveals that Apollinaire was instrumental in guiding young Guillaume’s vision and developing his taste. In the 1950s, Guillaume’s widow bequeathed her late husband’s collection to the Orangerie, where it now constitutes a major part of the permanent collection. In that sense, Apollinaire also deserves credit for determining the character of the museum that now hosts his retrospective.
Collector, critic, friend, soothsayer, and founding father, Apollinaire was also, as the episode of his arrest reminds us, an immigrant whose status was at one point as precarious as that of many living in France today. At a time when foreigners in Europe and other parts of the world face ever-increasing scrutiny and resentment, the wealth of Apollinaire’s contribution to French literature and art history is particularly worth remembering. Luckily, Apollinaire, le regard du poète is just the reminder that was needed.