Diary: Hugh Eakin on Apollinaire and Picasso, Friendship in a Plague Year (Part One)

In the November 1, 1918, issue of the Paris journal Mercure de France the poet and decorated war veteran Guillaume Apollinaire dedicated a column to Alan Seeger, a Harvard-educated American expatriate who had been killed while serving in the French Foreign Legion in 1916. Like Apollinaire—who rhapsodized about dying on the front and carried shrapnel wounds in his skull—Seeger had had a heroic view of self-sacrifice: he may have been the first American lost in the fighting and is most remembered today for his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” With characteristic impishness, however, Apollinaire chose to commend Seeger’s apparently unsuccessful effort to introduce baseball to the French rather than his portentous verse. On the eve of the war, Seeger had made the case for the sport in Apollinaire’s short-lived literary magazine Les Soirées de Paris, praising the “energy, speed, and sang-froid” it brought out in its players.

Apollinaire’s appreciation of Seeger was one of the last things he wrote. By November 1918, the Spanish flu was raging through Paris; the same issue of Mercure offered a lengthy essay by a French doctor on the epidemiology of la grippe espagnole, a “sovereign” disease, he warned, extremely contagious and felling rulers and ruled alike. Even as Mercure was going to press, the pandemic had reached Apollinaire. His lungs already ravaged by war, the poet rapidly sickened, dying on the afternoon of November 9, just two days before the Armistice. His own rendezvous with death came not in valorous combat—si je mourais là-bas sur le front de l'armée— but bedridden at home. He was thirty-eight years old.

The person most affected by the loss of Apollinaire was not a fellow soldier, however, but a comrade from another medium who had never been to the front: Pablo Picasso. The two had forged an intense bond in their threadbare days before the war as striving young adoptive Frenchmen (the Polish-Italian Apollinaire, the Spanish Picasso). Along with unusual self-assurance and uncontainable creative energies, the art-loving poet and poetry-loving artist shared a timely set of preoccupations: with found objects and tribal forms; with exuberant subversion and sly reuse of the classical tradition; with erotic humor and cabaret squalor; with the disorienting simultaneity of early twentieth-century life. And in those early years, it was just as often Apollinaire who led the way: in her celebrated 1909 group portrait, Apollinaire and his Friends, the painter Marie Laurencin, who was briefly his lover, places the poet at center stage with Picasso looking on.

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As the Apollinaire scholar Peter Read has meticulously documented, Apollinaire’s dazzling wit and shape-shifting poems pushed Picasso into new realms of visual experience. “You know how much I love you and you know how joyful I am. Reading your verse I am very happy,” Picasso had told his friend in 1913, on the publication of the latter’s breakthrough collection, Alcools. For his part, Apollinaire was one of the first to champion Picasso’s Cubist work, adapting Picasso’s splintering perspectives for his own syntactically fragmented and visually constructed “poem events.” Filled with sparklingly fresh language-sounds and a jangle of contemporary and classical imagery, the poems were as daring as the stacked-rectangle portrait of Apollinaire that Picasso provided for the collection’s front page. (Some of the best of the poems, bracingly translated by Ron Padgett, are included in the recently published Zone: Selected Poems.)

Even in the darkest days of the war, the dialogue between the two continued, in exchanges of letters, sketches, and poems to and from the front. At one point, Apollinaire sent Picasso a ring he had made him from a piece of artillery; when Apollinaire was nearly killed—shelled while sitting in a trench reading an article about Syrian history in Mercure—Picasso drew him in charcoal, with a bandaged head and wearing his croix de guerre.

But it was following Apollinaire’s discharge from the army that their lives became most closely entwined. In the final spring of the war, after years of parallel romantic turmoil, the two resolved at almost the same moment to settle down. In May of 1918, Apollinaire asked Picasso to be one of his two witnesses when he married the “pretty redhead” Jacqueline Kolb in a small civil ceremony in Paris’s 7th Arrondissement; Apollinaire did likewise for Picasso just two months later, when Picasso wed the Russian dancer Olga Khoklova at the same 7th Arrondissement mairie. (A separate religious ceremony was held at the Russian Church on the rue Daru.) To commemorate their new lives, Picasso gave Apollinaire a Cubist painting in war-like grays and greens, Man with a Guitar; Apollinaire recited a short poem to Picasso and Olga (“our marriages are children / of this war and triumphant”).

During their honeymoons—Apollinaire at Kervoyal on the Breton coast, Picasso in Biarritz—they wrote long letters and hatched plans for new combinations of verse and art. Both were optimistic about the future. Apollinaire had just published his second collection, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (this time with Picasso’s bandaged-head portrait in the front), and was immersed in new projects: poems, articles, film scripts, novels, even a comic opera. Picasso, after years of uncertainty, had found an ambitious new dealer, Paul Rosenberg, and was entering a prolific phase of his own, resurrecting—and transforming—the serene neoclassicism of early-nineteenth-century forebears, even as he took his Cubist explorations to lyrical new heights.

Then, in Paris, the two friends reunited … (Read more in Part Two, here!)

Hugh Eakin, a Brown Foundation Fellow, is working on a book about Picasso in America. 

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Image: Marie Laurencin, Réunion à la campagne (Apollinaire et ses amis), (1909). Musée Picasso, Paris. Apollinaire is at the center, Picasso just to his right.