As artists continue to expand the definition of drawing, and art historians redefine the medium accordingly, the kinds of works on paper we acquire have become increasingly unorthodox, ranging from room-size installations to the traces of performances. Yet sometimes a humble sheet of paper from the beginning of the 20th century is just as radical. One of our most exciting recent acquisitions is a drawing by the French poet, critic, and general giant of modernism, Guillaume Apollinaire. From championing Cubism in his revue Les Soirées de Paris to coining the term “surrealism” in the program note for the Picasso-designed ballet Parade, Apollinaire arguably contributed as much to the history of visual art as he did to literature.
Among Apollinaire’s wide-ranging interdisciplinary achievements are the calligrammes—poems in which words are arranged to create visual images. The volume Calligrammes was first published by Mercure de France in 1918, shortly before the writer’s death from influenza. The poems’ rapport with visual art is evident in Apollinaire’s original intention, in 1914, to publish a group of them under the title “Et moi aussi je suis peintre”—“I too am a painter.”
Revolver—the first unique work by Apollinaire to enter the Museum’s collection—is a study for the calligramme “Éventail des saveurs”. Though the poem’s title is generally translated as “A Range of Flavors,” the word éventail also means “fan” in French, and Apollinaire evokes one with the triple arc at the composition’s center right. (It’s the form that I can’t help but think of as the wireless icon that lets you know you’re connected to a network.) Executed in 1917–18, this drawing is the second of six known preparatory studies for this particular calligramme—there are three drawings and three proofs—and by the time the poem is printed, the fan has morphed into an ear.
Indeed, the drawing can be seen as a face, with a mouth and an eye as well. But Apollinaire mingles the various senses, using language that describes taste to give form to the ear, and making the mouth out of words that describe the sensation of hearing. This synesthetic quality is reminiscent of Symbolism, a late 19th-century movement that prized mystery. At the same time, however, this work is decidedly forward looking. Begun in 1917, it coincides with Apollinaire’s lecture “L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes,” in which he declared that “Typographical artifices worked out with great audacity have the advantage of bringing to life a visual lyricism which was almost unknown before our age.”
Part drawing, part poetry, Revolver marks an important moment in the history of the relationship between word and image. We’re thrilled to add a unique work by Apollinaire to the collection.