Prophet-like, Rimbaud, during his life as poet, existed quite alone and separated from his age. Guillaume Apollinaire is another type of writer, solidly a part of his age, and so integrated with a group of artists that his work has been somewhat overshadowed by a period. He was so flamboyantly the initiator and spokesman of a period, the first decade and a half of this country, that it is difficult to think of him as an individual writer. His close friend Max Jacob once jokingly referred to "Apollinaire's century" (le siécle d'Apollinaire). The joke indicates the rôle of leader he played in the Paris art circles.
Guillaume de Kostrowitsky (born in Rome 1880, died in Paris 1918). Born of a Polish mother and a SwissItalian father, Apollinaire used to like to pass himself off as the son of an Italian prelate. An extraordinary character and an inordinate hoaxer, but at the same time a poet of captivating charm and sincerity, Apollinaire played a most important role in the history of modern art. One of his claims to distinction -- and by no means the least -- stems from his having perpetuated the tradition started by the nineteenth-century French poets headed by Baudelaire of devoting some of their finest work to the exaltation of the plastic arts, particularly the new painting of their time. Apollinaire's poetic temperament, his constant preoccupation with creativity, his enlightened faithfulness to the art of the past, destined him for the role that he was to play as the standard-bearer of Cubism. This taste for the plastic arts, far from being gradually acquired, as it was with many poets and writers, was marked in Apollinaire from an early age, the product of a mind 'ardent in its search for beauty'. Apollinaire was passionately drawn to any work of art that tended to give Nature the aspect of something outside the bounds of reality. He was inordinately sensitive to all subjects or objects that in any way transfigured our all too humdrum lives. Hence that love that he manifested for odd curios, for the arts of primitive peoples, of Negroes, for children's drawings; that enthusiasm for the unexpected, the esoteric and the rare.
When, in 1904, he first came in contact with Derain, Vlaminck and Matisse, he was completely staggered by the apparently anarchical riot of colour in the work of the future Fauvists and by their ambition to conjure up a reality more authentic than mere appearances. That was something that matched his penchant for the unknown and the bizarre. It did not take him long to discover that these painters' ideas also had something stirring and true in them. Soon, through his writing, he was giving his new friends every support in their efforts.
At this point Apollinaire met Picasso, whose blue period opened up new and somewhat conflicting vistas before him. Apollinaire emerged considerably shaken by the totally contradictory things he had seen. Confronted with Picasso's work, he could not have reacted otherwise. He never gave lightly his support to any of the evolutions of the art of his day. Only after careful analysis -- méditations esthétiques, to quote from the title of one of his books -- did he permit himself to be drawn into the art movements of which he was a witness. He never, for example, concealed the fact that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (see plate, page 64) had disconcerted him at first. He was always honest in his criticism, both of himself and of those he championed.
It was not until 1913 that he came out with a passionate defence of Cubism in his book on the Cubist painters, Les Peintres Cubistes. From then on he did not hesitate to recognize in the new aesthetic movement a revolution 'renewing the plastic arts' and 'restoring order and craftsmanship to their place of honour'.
He was considerably perturbed by the conflict in painting between the processes of the mind and those of the senses. But what he extolled in Cubism was the idea of creation, which formed its core. Cubism is 'not an imitative art but a conceptual art that aspires to creation', he wrote.
Apollinaire was to strengthen further the new bonds he had forged between painting and poetry when he coined the term 'Orphism' to describe the art of Robert Delaunay. The glittering enchantment of this artist's Windows, opening out on to a world of pure colour, actually had a far greater effect on Apollinaire's sensibility than the austere dialectics of the Cubist compositions ever had, although Apollinaire took over some daring examples of Cubist syntax which, transposed into the sphere of poetry, inspired him to a totally new way of writing (as evidenced in his ellipses, his omission of punctuation and his calligrammes). One of his finest poems, Windows, was written under the inspiration of Delaunay's picture.
Because of his insatiable curiosity, Apollinaire allowed himself to be charmed by the Futurist adventure, from 1912 on. The surmise is, however, that he was attracted more by its scintillating dynamism that tended to convert painting into a kind of cinematography than by its negation of all tradition and the advice given by the Futurists to set fire to all museums. Apollinaire soon gave up his collaboration with the Futurists. But it was with profound conviction that he upheld the metaphysical conceptions of Chirico, in his opinion 'the most astonishing painter of his time. The search for unsuspected relationships between objects, propounded by Chirico, led Apollinaire to stress the importance of dreams and to throw light on certain elements of the subconscious which were to be the basis of Surrealism (a name which he invented in 1917). We have been left an extremely disturbing testimony of the friendship between the two men at that time: the portrait of Apollinaire, dated 1914, in which Chirico gives a silhouette of the poet as a human target with a bullet-hole in his head. The portrait was indeed prophetic. Apollinaire died in 1918, an easy prey to the 'flu epidemic, after being wounded in the forehead by a German bullet in the war.
Apollinaire applied his initiative to the most decisive and daring art movements of his time. The close union between poets and painters which he promoted created a kind of poetic effervescence around the plastic arts which has gone far towards placing their creations on a radically new plane. It is to Apollinaire's courage, his convictions and, above all, to the confidence which his culture and genius inspired, that painting of the first half of this century owes the audacity and the daring of its concepts, if not the actual creation of its general aesthetic doctrine. Apollinaire's work has, in addition, the merit of having enabled artists to overcome, with surprising rapidity, the inevitable opposition and fatal incomprehension that this most sensational revolution in art history was bound to stir up.