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

[Read Part One of this post here]

In mid-October, Rosenberg found Picasso and Olga a luxurious Right Bank apartment, and Picasso immediately asked his friend Apollinaire—with whom he had shared years of Montmartre grittiness—to come see it. Shortly after the visit, Apollinaire fell ill; by the first days of November he was coughing uncontrollably. Picasso was devastated—and terrified. A notorious hypochondriac, Picasso ordinarily stayed as far away from sick people as he could; during the pandemic he was known to hold his hand over his mouth when anyone spoke to him to guard against infection, a gesture that seems particularly resonant today. (The doctor’s article in Mercure, which Picasso may well have read, warned that flu patients must be totally isolated.)

And yet Picasso was at Apollinaire’s bedside hours before he died. When a doctor was sent for, the poet said, “I want to live! I’ve still got so much to say!” That afternoon, Picasso was too upset to do anything except stare in the mirror and draw himself, over and over again. (“Self-portraitists usually look lonely,” his biographer John Richardson has written, “but few as lonely as Picasso does in these drawings.”) When they learned of Apollinaire’s death Picasso and Olga ran back to his apartment. Picasso, holding a lamp above him, commented that he looked just “as he was when we first met.” Above his bed, between two candles, hung the painting Picasso had given him that summer.

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If Picasso had also contracted the flu, much of the art world we know today might not have come to pass. By 1918 he had already produced some of the most revolutionary art of our time. He had absorbed El Greco and Cézanne and the sculptural traditions of sub-Saharan Africa; he had taken Cubism to the cusp of abstraction and back again; he had made a cast of lonely circus performers, nudes, blind men, absinthe drinkers, and other castaways an enduring image of turn-of-the century bohemia. Yet much of his art—and the international renown that would secure his lasting influence—lay ahead of him. He was nearly twenty years away from Guernica, and even Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted back in 1907, remained in his possession, known mostly to his own circle in Paris. At the time of Apollinaire’s death, Picasso was largely shunned in the United States and knowledge of his work there confined to a handful of connoisseurs. As his French biographer Pierre Daix put it, he was still “a celebrated unknown.”

Picasso himself seemed to recognize the cruel arbitrariness of Apollinaire’s premature death and his own survival. For years to come, he obsessed over designs for a monument to his friend, a project that would inspire some of the most original sculpture of his career. Playfully conjuring modern machinery, West African kota masks, avian forms, and astronomical maps, these varying, spindly welded-wire prototypes attempted to give material form to Apollinaire’s polymorphous genius, creating what the poet had described in his novella, The Assassinated Poet, as a “statue made of nothing.” Ultimately, the designs were a little too radical, and, in an outcome that would have amused Apollinaire, the literary committee that was sponsoring the monument rejected them. (In the late fifties, skittish Paris officials would finally adapt an unrelated and rather conventional Picasso sculpture for a monument in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.) 

As his own star rose and rose, Picasso could not forget his “cher Guillaume.” Even as he cycled through mistresses and wives and lived through another world war—even as he entered his ninth decade, more than fifty years later—he was still quoting from Alcools and striving to give form to its shattering vision of modern life. If the pandemic had robbed him of his greatest friend, it had also, as Read suggests, given him an enhanced sense of purpose, a kind of death-defying life force that would push him restlessly forward, year after year. It would be up to Picasso to consummate the poet’s leaping ambition and live out his evocation of self-replenishing genius:
Listen to me, I’m the throat of Paris
And if I want, I’ll drink the universe again

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

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Image: Postcard from Pablo Picasso to Guillaume Apollinaire, dated September 5, 1918; sold at the Gaertner auction house in July 2015 © Christoph Gärtner auction house/AFP