The Cubist Painters (review)
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Reviewed by
Guillaume Apollinaire. The Cubist Painters. Translated, with Commentary by Peter Read. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 298 pp.

Guillaume Apollinaire's Cubist Painters is one of those famous works literary scholars of modernism know about but have not necessarily read. We know of its impact, of the way in which its poetic prose crossed disciplines even as it specifically evoked cross-disciplinarity, and how it attracted a readership of writers and artists alike. Peter Read's excellent new translation with commentary encourages us to read and reread anew Apollinaire's appreciation of the radical and new art of his generation. First published in 1913, Apollinaire was remarkably prescient in his appraisal and critique of the artists of his own time. With a focus on Cubist painters rather than on Cubism as a movement, Apollinaire concentrates on the inventiveness of his friends, the "young painters" Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. He predicts that this "entirely new art" will be to "painting, as hitherto understood, as music is pure literature" (12). Through his emphasis on novelty and creativity, Apollinaire identifies and describes artists like Picasso and Duchamp who left their mark on an era because of the way in which their work transcended artistic movements and became synonymous with lively innovation in twentieth-century art.

Read points out how Apollinaire's references to the French Revolution underscore the "aesthetic revolution" perpetrated by his own generation (174). He helpfully contextualizes the contemporary reaction to the new art of the Cubist painters by explaining how, in 1961, André Breton "still recalled how stunned he was when, in that 1913 issue of Les Soirées de Paris, he first encountered Picasso's Cubism. [End Page 139] These were shockingly disruptive works" (203). As Read states in his conclusion: "The Cubist Painters exactly expresses a moment of crucial change in the history of both art and art criticism, the crystallization of a new awareness that the event was now the work itself, and not the subject being depicted" (221). The principal leitmotif of this crystallization, as Read convincingly underscores, was light, an epiphanic light "refracted throughout the text" and which, Read explains, originated in a comment by Picasso in conversation with Apollinaire: "'I love light above all else. / Colours are only symbolic and reality is only in light'" (221; 138). These were images that sought to evoke a fourth dimension or "space itself, the dimension of infinity" (16).

Light, space, and purity were the qualities admired by Apollinaire. Imitative art, art taken from nature or created in reference to the past was superseded by this new vision of art, "more cerebral than sensual" (18). As Apollinaire declares early on: "Resemblance no longer has the slightest importance" (11). He thus anticipates how art in the new century will turn increasingly to what Breton would call an "interior model" and to abstraction.

Read also convincingly argues that Apollinaire's style is not only recognizable from his poetic writing but that some many of the qualities Apollinaire finds in the painters of his time also pertain to his own writing. The presence of references to "flames and to light," for example, which form "a unifying lexical and thematic thread" in The Cubist Painters in reference to the paintings of his friends, are familiar to readers of Apollinaire's "Zone" (109). Also, as in "Zone," the poet who claimed that advertising posters could sing poetry here reconciles "[h]igh art and everyday objects … as in a Cubist collage" (114). And, again as in "Zone" where Apollinaire posits the Eiffel tower as a new Sainte Geneviève: "All periods from antiquity to the twentieth century coexist simultaneously in the atemporal space of the text" (115).

In conclusion, Read's insistence upon Apollinaire's emphasis on "artistic expression itself as the essential subject" of this book on painting seems appropriate to the poet whose own work was so innovative and whose poetry anticipated the avant-garde movements that were to follow him, from Dada to Surrealism to the American Beats. At the same time, Apollinaire surprises somewhat with his...