The Cubist Painters

by Guillaume Apollinaire

Translated, with commentary, by Peter Read.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

The first English translation of Apollinaire’s 1913 Les Peintres cubistes [Méditations Esthétiques], by a Mrs. Charles Knoblauch, was published in 1922 in three issues of The Little Review, where it replaced, so Peter Read tells us, the serialization of Ulysses, interrupted when a court ruling banned Joyce’s novel for obscenity.  “Readers’ response [to Apollinaire’s art criticism] was very positive,” Read observes, “and included a letter from William Carlos Williams declaring, after the first installment, that he ‘enjoyed thoroughly, absorbedly, Apollinaire’s article’” (217).  The artists who were Apollinaire’s subject were less  enthusiastic.  “Look,” Picasso, the book’s hero, told André Malraux, “Apollinaire knew nothing about painting, yet  he loved the real thing. . . . In the Bateau-Lavoir days the poets had that sixth sense” (213).  And Duchamp similarly remarked, “You know [Apollinaire] wrote whatever came into his head,” but,  so as not to seem ungenerous to his friend, added, “Anyway, I like what he did very much, because it didn’t have the formalism of certain critics” (213).

Apollinaire, as Picasso and Duchamp recognize, was hardly a systematic critic, much less an art theorist.  The Cubist Painters, as Peter Read presents it here, is best understood as a collage of shrewd , sometimes brilliant aperçus, “a calculated collection of chronologically disparate fragments which began as a collage manuscript and went through at least three sets of proofs” (102).  In his excellent commentary, which takes up two-thirds of this new edition, Read meticulously traces the genesis of each section of the book, from its inception in brief articles on various art shows in 1905, to the marginalia added in proof in 1912.  Originally called Aesthetic Meditations, the collection of subjective, lyrical art reviews, appearing in such newspapers as Les Soirées de Paris, did not introduce the term Cubism until 1911, when Apollinaire deemed it necessary to deflect the endless attacks in the popular press on painters like Georges Braque who were ridiculed for making their landscapes and portraits out of little “cubes.”  Apollinaire’s initial impulse, Read makes clear, was simply to define l’esprit nouveau in a variety of paintings, ranging from Fauve landscapes to the semi-abstractions of Robert Delaunay.  Indeed, his chapter on Picasso, the bravura piece of the book, does not so much as mention Cubism.

Peter Read’s precise and elegant new translation replaces the previously standard one of Lionel Abel, reproduced in such art history source books as Herschel B. Chipp’s  Theories of Modern Art and now over fifty years old.  But the translation is less important than the wealth of information Read provides and, best of all, his inclusion of all forty-five plates and the original frontispiece of the 1913 edition.  In his chapter-by-chapter commentary, he identifies the specific paintings to which Apollinaire is referring.  And further:  Read relates the imagery and tropes used to describe artworks to comparable passages in the writings of other poets or related to specific images and references in Apollinaire’s own poems.

In the commentary on Chapter I (a chapter originally published as the preface to a catalogue for a 1908 Circle of Modern Art exhibition in Le Havre), for example, Read notes that Apollinaire’s fervent belief that the potential to appreciate great painting exists in every man is similarly found in his 1913 poem “Un fantôme de nuées” (“A Phantom of Clouds”), inspired by Picasso’s saltimbanque paintings, “in which a magical child acrobat, balancing on a ball, cast a spell all around, so what when he finally disappeared, ‘every spectator sought within himself the miraculous child’” (126).  And further, Read identifies the source of Apollinaire’s famous aphorism, “On ne peut pas transporter partout avec soi le cadavre de son père” (“You cannot carry your father’s corpse around everywhere you go”) as Gérard de Nerval’s “Angélique,” where we read “You do not carry your father’s ashes around on the soles of your shoes” (126).  In both cases, Read points out, the poet insists that if innovation is essential, so is continuity with the past: as Apollinaire’s puts it, “But in vain do our feet leave the ground in which the dead repose” (7).

Or again, consider Read’s detailed commentary on the references in Apollinaire’s Picasso chapter.  The first part of this essay appeared in the literary journal La Plume in 1905: here the poet produced a lyric ekphrasis of Picasso’s Blue and then Rose Period paintings.  For example:

Other beggars have been worn out by life.  They are invalids, cripples and riff-raff.  They are amazed to have reached their destination, which is still blue and no longer the horizon.  Growing old, they have gone mad, like kings with too many herds of elephants, hearing little citadels on their backs.  There are travelers who take flowers for stars.  (32).

Not only does Read demonstrate that Apollinaire is referring to such Blue Period paintings as the 1903 Old Guitarist; he also relates Apollinaire’s reference to “mad kings” to the poet’s own “Chanson du mal-aimé” in Alcools.  And the sentence “There are travelers who take flowers for stars,” is read against a passage in Nerval’s Sylvie, where the narrator takes a short cut along “a road lined with apple-trees whose blossom I have often seen shining brightly in the light, like earthly stars” (143).  Again, Read observes shrewdly that when Apollinaire, contemplating the beggar children in the Blue Period paintings, remarks, “These children whom no-one ever kisses  understand so much!  Mummy, please love me!” (32), the poet is inserting a veiled reference to his own lonely childhood into the narrative.  Such collage effects looks ahead to the second part of the Picasso essay, written in 1912, which features the recent invention of papiers collés, as assembled in what was to be the first Cubist collage, Still-Life with Chair Caning, which “includes a piece of printed oilcloth simulating the woven canework of a chair”(150).

In identifying the paintings Apollinaire speaks of, both in the Picasso chapter and in such others as those on Marie Laurencin and Juan Gris, Read is especially helpful.   He insists, moreover, that Apollinaire was never quite satisfied with his four-fold division of Cubism into the Scientific, Physical, Orphic, and Instinctive categories (see 25-26), explaining that such classification was largely a rhetorical strategy, designed to counter the pejorative use of the term Cubism by the mainstream press.   But Read’s discussion of Apollinaire’s broader principles and strategies is less satisfying.  He takes at face value Apollinaire’s “anti-Naturalist, anti-mimetic” stance (113), his assertion, characteristic of the epoch, that “Only photographers make copies from nature” (9), and his  “fundamental perception . . . that the true subject of modern art is art itself, and the artist’s main concern is the autonomous ordering of chosen resources in order to achieve aesthetic emotion.”  Apollinaire, Read insists, “is first and foremost a poet, focused on lyrical expression” (117).

But just what is “aesthetic emotion”?  And n what sense is Picasso’s witty, constructivist, and depersonalized Cubism the equivalent of “lyric expression”?   If “Scientific Cubism” (Picasso’s category) “is the art of painting new compositions with elements taken not from reality as it seen, but from reality as it is known” (25),” if it demands the elimination of “contingent visual and anecdotal elements” (25), what is the connection of such elimination to the “I”-centered lyric of Alcools?   Indeed, the painter perhaps most congenial to Apollinaire was the “Orphic” Cubist (which is to say, not a Cubist at all), Robert Delaunay, whose semi-abstract, colorful, and lyrical cityscapes can be profitably compared to such poems as “Zone.”

I don’t mean to minimize the startling insights Apollinaire gives us—insights no one else at the time had fully formulated, as with respect to   the role of the Fourth Dimension and non-Euclidean geometry in Cubist painting.   A champion of collage, Apollinaire understood as did few of his peers in 1912, that “You can paint with whatever you like, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards, playing-cards, candelabras, pieces of oilcloth, shirt-collars, wallpaper or newspapers” (39).   He recognized, in other words, that the New Art had to come to terms with the new technology.  “I hate artists,” he announced in the Braque chapter,  “who are not of their own time” (42).  But his wholesale dismissal of representation in art now seems simplistic, as does his excessive admiration for Jean Metzinger, whose “new compositions,” were held to be “entirely stripped of everything that was known before him” (47).   Again, Apollinaire took Picabia’s elaborate and witty verbal puns to be on the same order as the letters in Picasso’s paintings and collages, and his main commentary on Duchamp was that his example reinstated the importance of the nude for painting.

Read’s commentary, detailed as it is, is largely expository; only occasionally does it submit a particular insight or judgment to critique. This is is too bad because the limitations,  as well as the strengths, of Apollinaire’s “aesthetic meditations” provide fascinating insight into the very special ethos of the French avant guerre.

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