(This is the first in a series featuring literary and other artistic “Responses to World War I” in the Library of Congress collections. This post is by Marianna Stell, who interns for both the European Division and the Rare Book & Special Collections Division.)
Upon hearing the term “avant-garde,” most of us probably think of art. In particular, we are apt to think of those early-20th-century writers and artists whose work contributed to the progress of new aesthetic movements and the advance of modernism. But the term has not always referred to cutting-edge style. In fact, it had its origins in medieval military formation: the avant-garde was the foremost unit in an advancing army. In its Rare Book & Special Collections Division, the Library of Congress has a number of avant-garde artists’ books – works of art in book form – that bring to mind both uses of the term. Authored by writers and illustrated by artists who frequented the cabarets and cafés of the Montmartre district in Paris, these books draw upon the first-hand experiences of their creators, who also soldiered on the front lines of World War I.
Many European authors and artists were profoundly influenced by their experiences in World War I between 1914 and 1918. As this “war to end all wars” changed national borders, entire landscapes, social order, and mores, the modernist movements in the arts — which started in the late 19th century searching for new forms of expression — increasingly resonated with the survivors. The impact of World War I on the book arts may be seen in the Library of Congress collections, which have kept pace with global historical changes. Examples of such creations include the modernist works of the French-language authors Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961, a Swiss poet and essayist) and his friend Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918, a French poet of Polish and Italian origins).
In 1917, after his discharge from the French Foreign Legion, Blaise Cendrars wrote “La fin du monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D.” [The end of the world, filmed by the angel N.-D. (i.e., Notre Dame)]. Known as the “Left-Handed Poet,” Cendrars was actually right-hand dominant, but he was wounded in Champagne, and his arm required amputation below the elbow. Determined not to give up his craft, he learned to write with his left hand while convalescing in a military hospital. Two years later, in 1919, the book was published with accompanying lithographs by his friend and collaborator, the well-known French artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955), who had also served in the French infantry.
Cendrars first conceived of this sardonically apocalyptic novelette as a screenplay, which accounts for the book’s unusual title. The narrative presents God as a capitalist film producer, who rains destruction on humankind for his own profit. In the opening scene, God is depicted at his desk in his American office, signing piles of paperwork, taking phone calls, and chomping on a cigar. The evocative shapes of Léger’s cubist lithographs are reminiscent of machinery, advertisements, and the hectic noise of an increasingly abstract world, a world where one powerful despot in a remote office can bring ruin upon thousands of lives. Léger’s artwork was influenced by the machinery of war—the cannons, the tanks, the human inventions that exterminated other humans with unrelenting efficiency and power.
Apollinaire’s book of collected verse, “Calligrammes: poèmes de la paix et de la guerre, 1913-1916,” [Calligrams: poems of peace and war, 1913-1916] was first published only months before his death in 1918. The Library’s collection contains two rare copies of an impressive reprinting of the text from 1930, one of which is housed in an exquisite, citron-colored leather binding crafted by the famous French bookbinder, Paul Bonet (1889-1971). The front and back covers are carefully constructed from pieces of leather and decorated with the letters of the author’s full name. This edition also includes lithographs by the well-known Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978).
“Calligramme” is the term that Apollinaire used to describe the word-paintings that he created and often included in the letters that he sent from his military postings. A close friend of Picasso, Apollinaire was greatly influenced by cubism, and his particular form of concrete poetry conveys a similar fragmented, abstracted, yet pictorial style. Apollinaire’s poem, “2ͤ canonnier conducteur” [2nd gunnery driver], is playful in its form but sincere in its content.
The iconic shapes made of words in this poem—a boot, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower—read as follows:
Boot: “Sacré nom de Dieu quelle allure nom de Dieu quelle allure cependant que la nuit descend” (Holy name of God, what speed, name of God, what speed. In the meantime, the night is falling)
Cathedral of Notre Dame: “souvenirs de Paris avant la guerre ils seront bien plus doux après la victoire” (Memories of Paris before the war, they will be much sweeter after victory)
Eiffel Tower: “salut monde dont je suis la langue éloquente que sa bouche O Paris tire et tirera toujours aux Allemands” (Hail world, whose eloquent tongue I am, that its mouth, Oh Paris, sticks out and always will stick out at the Germans)
The boot voices the experience of a poet serving as a foot soldier and marching at great speed. The Eiffel Tower voices the poet’s defiance on behalf of Paris, where the tower becomes an image of an enormous tongue perpetually outthrust toward its aggressors. The Cathedral of Notre Dame becomes the symbol of the poet’s memories, which are associated with a structure of beauty, human ingenuity, history, and sacredness. Centrally located within the poem, as it is within the city, the image of the Cathedral is protected by the resolute boot and the defiant tower. The Cathedral occupies the heart of the poem, as Paris seems to have occupied the heart of Apollinaire. The poet dedicated his collection of “Calligrammes” to the memory of his friend, René Dalize, who died on the battlefield.
Apollinaire’s love for Paris prompted him to join the French army at the outbreak of the war, and he was assigned to an artillery regiment. While fighting in Champagne in 1916, he received a shrapnel wound on his temple and never fully recovered. Weakened by his injury, he died of the Spanish influenza in 1918 and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, but his influence as one of the foremost poets of the early 20th century would continue to inspire writers and painters long after his death.