Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters; Apollinaire and Cubism
Romanic Review, May 2004 by Aurora, Vincent
Peter Read, Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters; Apollinaire and Cubism; Artists Bookworks; East Sussex, England, 2002, Pp. 304.
The new volume of Guillaume Apollinaire's The Cubist Painters published by Peter Read is divided into two parts, first a new translation of the 1913 French text, then Read's own Apollinaire and Cubism, a chapter by chapter commentary. The poet's text, faithfully reproduced down to an approximation of the original design and layout and, for the first time, with the same plates reproducing the discussed artists' works as had been included by Apollinaire, is itself divided into two parts: first a theoretic text, titled Aesthetic Meditations, on the beauties of "modern," i.e. Cubist, painting, and then The Cubist Painters proper, a series of essays on nine French Cubist painters of the day, giving pride of place to Picasso and Braque before continuing to Metzinger, Gleizes, Laurencin, Gris, Léger, Picabia and Duchamp, as well as one sculptor, Duchamp-Villon.
The true contribution of this volume is not the new translation, however skilled it is: other translations have appeared in the past, one in 1922 by Mrs. Charles Knoblauch, two editions of Lionel Abel's translation in 1944 and 1949, and more recently, the fine translation published by Patricia Roseberry in 2000, unfortunately omitted in Read's otherwise detailed bibliography, yet which perhaps, of the four translations, best captures the lyricism of the Apollinaire's French.
Instead, the true value of Read's volume is derived from the thoroughness of his commentaries, which, following the progression of the original text step by step, take the form of mini-essays, highly superior to the more common approach to commentary, the footnote, for where footnotes would have interrupted Apollinaire's text and offered fragmentary information about individual phrases or sentences, Read's approach allows him to present a gestalt of the thoughts, reactions and language composing Apollinaire's volume. In his essays, Read examines Apollinaire's chapters from many angles: he situates the text(s) genetically, explaining the patchwork feel of the original as a result of the process of its composition, as it was pieced together from various lectures and articles Apollinaire had published previously and pasted together with new connecting text, which goes far in explaining the sudden shifts in Apollinaire's thought.
The essay format also enables Read to situate Apollinaire's text(s) historically, in the light of the furious debate on the nature of art raging in 1913, which in turn permits us to appreciate the full polemic value of The Cubist Painters, an aspect that the passage of time would otherwise have to a great degree erased, and which also clarifies Apollinaire's occasional seeming incoherence, such as when he insists at length on the appropriateness of Picabia's use of nudes. The apparently gratuitous stridence of this repeated assertion gains its full meaning only when Read informs us that in a contemporary manifesto of the rival Futurists, Boccioni, Carrà, Russolo and others had proclaimed "the Nude in painting is as sickening and deadly dull as adultery in literature." By stressing Duchamp's use of nudes, as in the famous Nude descending a staircase, Apollinaire was drawing a clear distinction for his less-informed readers between Futurists and Cubists, a distinction lying at the heart of the pedagogical aim of Apollinaire's text, as he struggled against a wave of hostility to inform the general public of Cubism, while at the same time defending it against its many detractors.
In his commentaries, Read also analyzes Apollinaire's strategies in this work of pro-Cubist propaganda, even touching upon the photographs of the painters that the poet included in his text, where the artists, combed, brushed and dressed in their Sunday best, would present an image of respectability to counter the depiction of them as shaggy savages common among the general public of the time.
Perhaps most interestingly from a literary standpoint, in his essays, Read examines the text's use of intertextual metaphor, identifying a network of metaphors derived from the familiar, such as the creation myth from Genesis and the Prometheus myth of the artist as bringing light to humanity, which Apollinaire pressed into service in his almost messianic praise of the new visionaries, to the less obvious, such as the fourteenth-century Saint Martin and even Danton, an echo of whom provides the text with the subtly revolutionary ring befitting a description of radically new painting: Apollinaire's "you cannot carry your father's corpse around everywhere you go" is a reworking of Nerval's "you do not carry your father's ashes around on the soles of your feet," which itself is a reworking of Danton's "you do not carry your nation around on the soles of your shoes.")
But it is in his examination of the least accessible texts in Apollinaire's volume that Read's analyses prove most useful. His analysis of Apollinaire's Aesthetic Meditations, in which the poet assumes the voice of the illuminato to sing the importance of the Cubists' artistic revolution, helps clarify Apollinaire's division of Cubism into four trends, two "impure" (which Read deciphers as meaning "representational"), Physical Cubism (reality as it is seen) and Instinctive Cubism (not reality as it is seen, but "as it is suggested to the artist by instinct and intuition") and two "pure" (i.e. non-representational), Scientific Cubism (not reality as it is seen, but reality as it is known) and Orphic Cubism (elements not derived from reality at all, but rather "entirely created by the artist and invested by him with a powerful reality").
These seemingly important distinctions are nevertheless presented with such oracular vagueness in Apollinaire's Meditations as to be practically useless (Read's chapter on contemporary reactions to Apollinaire's categories, ranging from ridicule to outright rejection, shows that even some of the artists concerned could not understand what Apollinaire was trying to say. Quoting Picasso, "Look, Apollinaire knew nothing about painting, yet he loved the real thing"; or again, Duchamp, "You know he wrote whatever came into his head" [II, 131]), until Read defines Apollinaire's Scientific Cubism, perhaps leadingly, as the "simultaneous presentation of successive, multiple viewpoints" as the eye examines an object (II, 52), which in more contemporary parlance is called "Analytic Cubism," and "Orphic Cubism" as a form of Cubism which tended towards, and which would eventually develop into pure Abstractionism. Yet in his failure to define Apollinaire's other two types of Cubism, the Physical and the Instinctive, Read's injunction that the poet's categories be revisited and reassessed falls flat.
Read's analysis also excels when directed on the one part of the second half of Apollinaire's volume, the discussion of individual painters, where the poet gives full rein to lyricism, namely in his hymn to Picasso. As the "inventor" of Cubism with Braque, Picasso is regaled with a prose poem that mutatis mutandis prefigures Eluard's 1922 collaboration with Ernst, Les Malheurs des immortels. As Picasso's plates at the end of the volume do not correspond with the poem, and as none of Picasso's other works is named in Apollinaire's text, the reader would be hard-pressed to identify the meaning of such particularly proto-surrealistic paragraphs as these:
Picasso was hardened by pity. The town squares supported a hanged man stretched out against the houses above the slanting passers-by. These condemned men were expecting a savior. The rope hung down mysteriously, near the attic rooms; the panes of glass flamed brightly with the flowers in the windows.
In their rooms, poverty-stricken painters were working by lamplight, drawing naked figures adorned with pubic hair. The woman's slippers left near the bed suggested amorous haste. (I: 35)
Read explains this prose poem by identifying much of it as a reworking of a 1905 article in which the poet took inspiration from elements he had seen in works by Picasso at an exhibition that same year, and which thus have nothing to do with the Picasso plates presented in The Cubist Painters: "[...] the evocation of a hanged man [ ... ] recalls the 1904 ink and watercolor drawing known as The Christ of Montmartre (whereabouts unknown). In the passage describing the naked woman, a haggard artist working by lamplight, and 'slippers left near the bed,' can be recognized the 1904 ink, wash and watercolor drawing, The Poet (Baltimore, The Evergreen House Foundation)." (II, 61) Without these identifications, which stem from Read's recognition of the 1905 article in the 1913 text, and then from his discovery of which of Picasso's works had been exhibited, many of Apollinaire's prose poem's references would have been lost.
Read is less convincing when he attempts to explain by biographical anecdote, such as when he tries to identify elements of this prose poem to Picasso as drawn from the poet's troubled childhood as the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman: "The heartfelt 'Mummy, please love me!'" which surges suddenly from the first part of the text, recalls the collage-like shifts in register that typify the poetry of Alcools. This revealing interjection also indicates how far the poet, reliving his own, deep-rooted insecurity, identifies with all of Picasso's Blue Period refugees, outcasts and misfits." (II, 61-2) As the prose poem to Picasso presents a litany of sorry personages, such unnecessary and unprovable identifications can only detract from the strength of Read's otherwise well-documented analyses.
Read is more successful in stressing Apollinaire's enthusiasm for the anti-representational, anti-mimetic Cubist revolution. As Read states in one of his final essays, "if one had to identify a single, essential line of thought in the book, it would no doubt be Apollinaire's insistence on the self-referentiality of modern art." (II:135-6). It is with Read's careful demonstration of Apollinaire's jubilation at the long-overdue death of Impressionism and the end of art's slavish imitation of nature, at the birth of artistic freedom and the new role of the artist as full creator of his or her work, that the true importance of Apollinaire's lyrical, even cryptic text-indeed it is more a prose poem than expositional manifesto, though manifesto it also is-can be seen, especially when it is reset into its historical context, when other critics were deriding Cubism as the end of art, and indeed of culture itself.
Read's volume, by its rapid fluctuations in interpretative strategies, restores Apollinaire's truly polyphonic text to its pristine plurality as propaganda, criticism, exposition, introduction, polemic, poem, manifesto, defense, collage, and lyrical act of faith. And despite the negative judgments of many of Apollinaire's contemporaries, including to a degree some of the artists in question, despite the problematic categories of Cubism he attempted to establish, the fact that Apollinaire had a keen enough eye in his time to spot true talent, the names that would continue to embody Cubism even to our day, is indeed sufficient reason to welcome this carefully detailed examination of Apollinaire's single book of art criticism. (VINCENT AURORA, Columbia University)
Copyright Romanic Review May 2004
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