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Reviewed by:
  • Les Dessins de Guillaume Apollinaire
  • Timothy Mathews
Les Dessins de Guillaume Apollinaire. Edited by Claude Debon and Peter Read. (Les Cahiers dessinés). Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 2008. 160 pp, ill. Pb €39.50.

Et moi aussi je suis peintre! Apollinaire famously called the small collection of his first ideographic texts to be published, the ones that later appeared in the first part of Calligrammes (1918). There is something playful but mournful about this little exclamation, like an exhortation that might never convince the reader; a fantasy. But humility and awe in relation to painting combine with an expression of the right to make poetry in its company. This ease of movement between register is typical of Apollinaire's voice, and it is moving to see it develop visually under his hand alongside his journeys in writing. This beautifully produced and engaging volume shows Apollinaire discovering and inventing the styles open to him in drawing and painting. Rather than a poet's attempt at imitation, the effect is one of intimate echo. Arranged in chronological order, and accompanied by illuminating contextual and critical remarks, the items Claude Debon and Peter Read have collected include drawings in pencil and in ink; drawings within letters, within fragments of original or transcribed poetry, on rough pieces of paper amongst verbal jottings; and watercolours. The pictures are astonishing in their variety of content as well as form. From his youth through to his years at the front, not least in his Lettres à Lou — intriguingly, parts of some of these can be see in full facsimile here — as well as after his return, Apollinaire continually doodles, sketches, draws, and paints faces, expressions, poses, attitudes, costumes, uniforms; and in his personal, silent, ephemeral, and joyful visual imitations of gesture, a miniature cultural anthropology of his time accumulates. A menagerie of allusions to medieval, Symbolist, and modernist styles of drawing, painting, even illumination flows from Apollinaire's visual improvisations, which come to life again in this thoroughly appealing book. The items are reproduced with a sensitive eye to the way they must look in the original: the majority are published here for [End Page 500] the first time. Readers will find it easy to imagine the adolescent Apollinaire making up poems to the accompaniment of reverent and irreverent iconographic allusions; or Apollinaire drawing portraits of the Russian artist Archipenko, and possibly of Larionov and Goncharova on the back of his invitation to their exhibition at the Paul Guillaume Gallery in 1914. These are more accomplished ink sketches, reminiscent of Rouault in the breadth of the strokes used, and indicate growing self-confidence. Ce qu'on peut s'amuser avec les nombres astronomiques of 1916 anticipates Ernst's Les Hommes n'en sauront rien of 1923 in its use of caption to accompany the picture, and in the way erotic abandon seems captured in some vast system. The 1916 watercolours of horse riders at the bals masqués combine the subject matter of Seurat with the style of Chagall. Le Pont des Invalides, also of 1916, is a nostalgic return to Impressionism, and yet captures something of the post-Impressionism of Bonnard, as well the freedom of coloured line in Matisse. Humility pervades, rather than the pursuit of originality; and as pictures increasingly rub shoulders with writing, Apollinaire displays his synaesthetic understanding of the intimate binding of gesture and voice.

Timothy Mathews
University College London


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pp. 500-501
Launched on MUSE
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