Reflection: Guillaume Apollinaire and Cubism in Literature

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

Italian by birth, Polish by name (Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki), and Parisian by choice, Apollinaire was an important figure in art and literature in the early 20th century.  A leading name in poetry, he was in the artistic community at the time with famous names like Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Gertrude SteinMax Jacob, André Salmon, André Breton, André Derain, Faik Konica, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Alexandra Exter, Jean CocteauErik Satie, Ossip Zadkine, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Metzinger.  He first coined the terms orphism in 1912, and then surrealism in 1917.

Apollinaire’s art reflected his colorful life.  He had worked in libraries in the beginning of his writing career; he had worked as a teacher (in which period he met Annie Pleyden and fell in love with her, writing his work ‘Alcools’ inspired by this love); he compiled the works of Marquis de Sade; and he even got arrested and jailed on suspicion of stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris, but he was released after five days.  At the last years of his life, he fought in World War I and got seriously injured on his head.  In 1918, he died from the Spanish Flu.

Hand in hand we wait, face to face

While down below

The bridge of our embrace

Let the night falls and toll hours away

Days go by me, yet here I stay. (Le Pont Mirabeau, 1912)

Symbolism frequently appears in his poems as the fruits of his sorrows in life.  While he describes the Eiffel Tower in his poem “Zone”, what he actually describes is the new and free poetry of 20th century modernism by giving clever references to classic poetry.  He uses the symbols of antiquity and religion, together with futurism and shows the transition to modernity.  In his poem “Le Pont Mirabeau” (Mirabeau Bridge), he pictures the bridge as the hands of two lovers holding on together, and the Seine River beneath this bridge flows like time itself, while he waits in despair.

Moi aussi, je suis un peintre,” — I am also a painter myself, he says.  These words which carry the trails of modernist poetry, point out to the engagement of literature with other art forms.  Apollinaire manages to create cubism in literature and after other art forms, and it emerges in poetry as well.

Just like all other cubist artist, Apollinaire intervenes with the natural forms of “things” and recreates them with all the dimensions of their natural form.  Punctuations are meaningless for him — they are like bars that captivate the poetry.  However, Apollinaire’s poetry is free and it cannot be restrained with dots and commas.  His poems surpass the monotony of the lines, and come to life as “caligrammes”.  They become a reflection of surreality and cubism.  The poem itself is the very thing that liberates itself from the domination of linear lines.

Those lines sometimes become a raindrop and pour onto the paper, as in his poem “il pleut” (it rains).  They flow down through the paper like raindrops on the window.  Or sometimes they form into a horse, a butterfly, a woman.

Apollinaire’s influence in modern art can also be seen in other artist’s paintings like Jean Metzinger, Giorgio de Chirico, Louis Marcoussis and Picasso, they all drew a portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, which can be found in the Paris Modern Art Museum.


cv imageDeniz Ezgi Kurt studied French Language & Literature at Hacettepe University, Media & Cultural Studies at Middle-East Technical University, and Cultural Studies at Tilburg University.  She writes since childhood and tries to mediate the knowledge academically.  She worked as a translator and a teacher.  As a fiction enthusiast and a passionate gamer, she writes on videogame culture, visual media and pop-culture.  After living most of her life in Turkey, she now resides in Netherlands.