Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

Guillaume Apollinaire “Ô bouches l’homme est a la recherche d’un nouveau langage/ Auquel le grammairien d’aucune langue n’aura rien à dire” –Victoire, Guillaume Apollinaire

French poet, writer and critic, Guillaume Apollinaire is considered the “impresario of the French avant-garde” (Hajo Düchting). The illegitimate son of an eccentric and beautiful Polish noblewoman, Apollinaire was born in Rome then placed in the care of the Bishop of Monaco. In his youth, he traveled Europe, and attended various Catholic schools along the French Riviera, developed a passion for Symbolist and Naturalist writing, and ultimately settled in Paris at 18. Left to support himself due to his mother’s extravagance, he worked numerous jobs (secretarial, pornographic writing under a pseudonym, tutoring, banking) all while writing for magazines and his own poetry on the side.

In 1904, Apollinaire met Pablo Picasso who, in addition to become a lifelong friend, introduced him to Cubism. Apollinaire quickly became known as an experienced writer on and champion of new art, and began receiving literary recognition for his poetry by 1911. His temporary arrest in 1911 on suspicion of involvement in the theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre, however, threw Apollinaire’s life and work into crisis and marked a turning point in his career. He helped coin and promote Orphism, became inspired by Futurism and Simultanism, and began creating ideograms: images created from words, rich with references. In an effort to be acknowledged as a French citizen, Apollinaire joined the army in 1914, and after suffering a massive head wound in 1916, the Parisian art scene rejoiced at his return. A young Francis Poulenc attended the opening night of Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias in June of 1917, which garnered a great deal of interest from the artistic community. His life cut short by Spanish Influenza, Apollinaire died in November of 1918, just months after his marriage to Jacqueline Kolb, his inspiration for the book of ideograms Calligrammes.

Learn More About Guillaume Apollinaire and Read His Poetry!
Poetry Foundation Apollinaire Poetry Foundation – Guillaume Apolinaire


Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire

Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, 1914, by Giorgio de Chirico

When man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.” –Guillaume Apollinaire

It stands to reason that the champion of French avant-garde would be ahead of his time, coining the term “surréalisme” (Surrealism) in the program notes for Les Mamelles de Tirésias seven years before it became a full-fledged literary and artistic movement. Evolving out of Dadaism, Surrealism had a revolutionary political stance and and contempt for common culture, but with a more positive twist than its pessimistic predecessor. Instead of subverting common cultural concepts of creativity, Surrealism sought to “fuse the conventional, logical view of reality with unconscious, dream experience in order to achieve a ‘super-reality’.” (Christopher Masters)

Poet André Breton defined Surrealism in two ways in his 1924 First Surrealist Manifesto:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Looking back to the 1917 preface, it’s no wonder Brenton latched on to Apollinaire’s description to name the new movement:

We’re trying here to infuse a new spirit into the theater
A joy a voluptuousness a virtue
In order to replace this pessimism more than a century old
Which is quite old for a thing so boring
(Translated by Daniel Albright)

Apollinaire sought to use multi-sensory hyperreality to give greater weight to his subject (the need for a war-weary French nation to repopulate) than reality alone could give it. While Apollinaire did this through plot, scenic and costume design, and incidental music, Poulenc approached Surrealism in a slightly different manner.

Read Apollinaire’s Preface to Les Mamelles de Tirésias!
Bibliotheca Augustana Bibliotheca Augustana – Les Mamelles de Tirésias – Préface (French)

Read André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto!
Surrealist Manifesto
Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton (English Translation)

Differences Between Apollinaire’s and Poulenc’s Tirésias

Le Gendarme by Serge Ferat

Le Gendarme by Serge Ferat

When Poulenc became interested in writing an opera in 1940, he visited Apollinaire’s widow Jacqueline to gain permission to use and alter his text. While Poulenc cut very little, the changes he made had a significant impact on the feeling of the piece, and the effects of his aesthetic choices were even greater.

First, he shifted the location of the action from East African Zanzibar to the imaginary town of Zanzibar, which he placed somewhere between Monte Carlo and Nice in southern France. This was to eliminate any exoticism from the story. Next, he moved the time back from the original 1917 to 1912. In the wake of the Second World War, Poulenc eliminated the influence First World War from the opera, possibly to make the message of the story more pertinent to the current era, or as Daniel Albright postulated, “to represent a kind of peacetime exuberance of the French imagination” (297).

Le Gendarme by Erté

Le Gendarme by Erté

Changing the time had the added effect of “de-cubifying” the show, for while Apollinaire was already championing the style, Cubism didn’t become a staple of public style until after WWI. The original decor and costumes the teenage Poulenc saw were designed by cubist Serge Ferat. In his own show, Poulenc opted to remove the design from abstraction to haute couture, enlisting designer Erté to capture the lavish style of the early 1910’s. With this shift, Poulenc gave an absurd plot grounding by placing it within the context of the familiar and nostalgic. The music for Les mamelles de Tirésias had a similar goal.