1922’s La Nuit Espagnole (Spanish Night) marks the return to a more figurative approach for the mercurial Francis Picabia (see FOR-EVER) after a decade of experimentation with Orphism, Cubism, Proto-Dada and Dada. The previous year Picabia had broken with Dada after producing a violently anti-Dada manifesto, and he moved closer to the group gathered around Andre Breton. However such an anarchic spirit couldn’t ever be tethered down to any particular movement for long, and in 1924 he turned his back on the art world altogether, though he continued to paint in a bewildering array of styles for a number of decades.
Showing the influence of commercial illustration and graphic design, Picabia painted La Nuit Espagnole using black and white enamel paint. A silhouette of a devilish flamenco dancer approaches a naked women with suggestive targets areas reminiscent of De Chirico, who on occasion painted concentric circles on his figures (see Premonition). Both figures appear to be riddled with bullet holes. A striking painting by the most debonair, cynical and acerbic of Modern artists.
Avant-garde catalyst, the quintessential modernist and fashionable man about town, Guillaume Apollinaire saw himself as a spiritual heir of Charles Baudelaire, an urban poet who doubled up as an art critic. He coined the term Cubism and was the most impassioned and ardent of its early defenders. He also coined the term Orphism (a tendency in abstract art) and more famously, Surrealism, to describe Erik Satie’s music for Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade.
His list of contacts within Parisian artistic and literary scenes reads as a veritable who’s who of the pre-war avant-garde and include Picasso (a particularly close friend), Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, who painted a Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire in 1914 that eerily predicts the wounds that he was to suffer during WW1 (see Premonition).
His 1913 collection Alcools is a landmark in literary modernism and features the important poem Zone that, while grounded in Symbolism, points towards the future in its emphasis on the energy and vitality of the modern city and engagement with (then) new, evolving technologies.
Apollinaire also wrote several erotic novels including Les Onze Mille Verges, (The Eleven Thousands Rods), and he also led to the critical re-evaluation of Marquis De Sade of whom he remarked was ‘the freest spirit to ever live’.
Apollinaire volunteered during the first WWI and was stationed, appropriately for someone who was known for his fondness of a drink, in the Champagne Region. He suffered a head-wound in 1916 that required trepanning; he never really recovered although he published in 1917 another landmark collection of poetry Calligrammes that uses typography to startling effect, poems are shaped like a mirror, heart, a watch etc.
In 1918, still weakened by his war wound Apollinaire succumbed, like 19 million others to the Spanish Flu. He was 38 years old.
After his death Andre Breton, who admired Apollinaire and was very much in the tradition of poet/critic and cultural instigator, would take his coined phrase Surrealism and make it into one of the major intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century.
I would have liked to include his seminal poem Zone, however it is a very lengthy poem, so I have chosen instead one of his poems from his 1913 collection Alcools;Hotels.
The boss is doubtful Whether you’ll pay Like a top I spin on the way
The traffic noise My neighbour gross Who puffs an acrid English smoke
O La Vallière Who limps and smiles In my prayers The bedside table
And all the company in this hotel know the languages of Babel
Let’s shut our doors With a double lock And each adore his lonely love