Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Funeral for a Friend

Painters are often called poets with colors and poets are often called painters with words, but few painters and poets ever shared as close a bond as Pablo Picasso and Guilaume Apollinaire. “United in mutual respect, intellectual agreement, and a shared sense of humor,” Peter Read writes in Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory, Picasso and Apollinaire helped shape each other’s art from their first meeting in 1905 to Apollinaire’s death in 1918. Like a phantom limb, Apollinaire remained a presence in Picasso’s life for the next half century and continued to shape Picasso’s never-ending evolution. Read masterfully examines the depth of their relationship from its warm humor in caricatures such as Picasso’s drawing of Apollinaire as a tea pot (above, from 1905) to the inventive use of typography in Apollinaire’s Calligrammes to the haunting seriousness of Picasso’s forty-year quest to create a fitting memorial to his friend’s memory. Against the backdrop of avant-garde Paris before the Great War up until the 1970s, Read shows how these two men and their undying friendship placed them at the forefront of modern art.

Whereas most painters socialize with other painters, Picasso found himself most often in the company of poets—Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and others. But none match the influence of Apollinaire, whom Picasso met through Jacob. The two immediately became fast friends—soul mates from the start. Alfred Jarry served as the patron saint over all the artists of this period. “Jarry’s Rabelaisian vulgarity,” Read writes, “which inverted the hierarchy of human faculties, paved the way for Picasso’s 1907 revolution against established canons of beauty and retinal perspective in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” When Picasso and Apollinaire meet, they both still cling to classicism in their art—Apollinaire in his Alcools poems and Picasso in his Blue and Rose Periods. Apollinaire’s choice of a Cubist portrait of himself as the frontispiece to Alcools, however, announces a new direction in his art and links that direction to Picasso’s development. Apollinaire’s next collection, Calligrammes, features shaped poems in which the typography builds visuals such as the Eiffel Tower (above). At the same time, Apollinaire writes as an art critic for several publications, using his media outlet to promote Picasso’s art as well as all modern art looking to sweep away the conventions of the past. Like Vasari praising Michelangelo in his Lives, Apollinaire uses “Promethean and Pentecostal imagery” to posit Picasso as the culmination of all that came before. Unlike Vasari, however, Apollinaire refuses to cast other artists as villains and provide the anti-modernists with ammunition, which allows him to promote Matisse—a pseudo-third leg to the Apollinaire-Picasso love triangle—and others. Picasso even appears in Apollinaire’s fiction, playing out the same artistic struggles as in real life. In all these writings on Picasso, Read asserts, “Apollinaire is fully engaged as a creative writer, blurring the frontiers between journalism and literature, poetry and prose,” while simultaneously spurring Picasso to follow suit in blurring all lines of movements and “isms” in finding his own unique vision.

“Each combined coherent development with constant renewal,” Read writes of his title pair. Not even the onset of World War I could sever their ties. Sadly, just as the war ended, the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic claimed the life of Apollinaire, who had been weakened by exposure to gas warfare in the trenches. The entire circle centered upon Apollinaire grieved over his loss and gathered at his grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery each year on the November 9th anniversary. When a committee formed to erect a memorial at the poet’s grave, Picasso seemed the natural choice, but the artist struggled with the commission. Read recreates wonderfully the debate over the memory of Apollinaire—split between those who admired his classical side and those, like Picasso, who admired more the poet’s experimental side. Mimicking Apollinaire’s cut-and-paste poet technique, Picasso developed a cut-and-paste metal sculptural technique with the help of Julio Gonzalez. In 1930, Picasso offers Woman in a Garden (above) as a memorial for Apollinaire’s tomb. “Built to guard a poet’s tomb,” Read writes, “the sculpture fuses human, animal, vegetable, and mechanical forms in a structure whose main lines of force emphasize vertical energy.” Unfortunately, the modernism of Picasso’s memorial overwhelms the committee, including the widow, Jacqueline. “The committee wanted an ornament,” Read concludes, “but Picasso designed an idol.” In 1935, the committee allowed another artist to design the graveside memorial, but Picasso remained the true keeper of the Apollinaire flame.

Each year on the November 9th anniversary of Apollinaire’s death, Picasso would make some great gesture or create some noteworthy work of art. For the thirtieth anniversary, in 1948, Picasso painted The Kitchen (above). Since Apollinaire’s death, Picasso had witnessed much more death, visiting the extermination camps in Warsaw, Auschwitz, and Birkenau to witness first-hand the horror of the Holocaust whispered about in occupied France during World War II. The title of The Kitchen creates a false sense of domesticity, but the skull-like face in the center, with plates for eyes, disrupts the reassuring atmosphere. “The Kitchen,” Read believes, “uses a language of abstract black calligraphy, spread over empty space, to express the inexpressible.” As Apollinaire once patterned his poetry into shapes decades before, Picasso here reaches for poetry through his own use of line when words themselves fail. Read never fails to link the living Picasso to the deceased Apollinaire. Among all the ghosts of the entire haunted twentieth century, Apollinaire speaks loudest to Picasso from the beyond, constantly reminding him of the need to move on and create in even the darkest times.

Read ends this love story with a happy ending. Apollinaire’s widow Jacqueline never stopped asking Picasso to create some memorial to her husband, his friend. Other artists, including Matisse, flirted with the idea of public memorial to the poet. Finally, in 1959, Picasso donated the sculpture titled Head of Dora Maar (above) as a memorial to Apollinaire to be placed on Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Read includes a slew of photos taken on the day of the unveiling in 1959, but Picasso himself seems conspicuous by his absence. The sculpture itself stands for his monumental presence in the honoring of his friend. Both classically scaled yet modernly abstracted, Picasso’s sculpture acknowledges both sides of the poet as well as both sides of his own art, bringing the relationship that began almost half a century before back full circle. Read neatly ties up all the loose strings and brings down the curtain gently on this long friendship, presenting a casebook example of how a common artistic spirit can transcend all media. Anyone who wishes to understand the head and heart of Picasso needs to know the works of Apollinaire. Anyone who wishes to understand exactly how the works of each of those two artists, so individual yet so united, fit together in life and in death, needs to know Peter Read’s Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory.

[Many thanks to the University of California Press for providing me with a review copy of Peter Read’s Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory.]

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