Paul Éluard and Important Artists and Artworks
Le Cirque Triptych (The Circus Triptych) (1913)
Although he is known as one of the most important figures in twentieth century poetry, Éluard produced a small number of drawings during his early years. By the early 1920s Éluard had decided that his writing was superior to his art and no more than a dozen artworks by him, all produced between 1910-18, are known to exist. In this grouping of abstract compositions, produced by an 18-year-old Éluard, strange and stylised organic shapes, boldly outlined in black - partly human, partly animal - float and tumble under the spotlights of a circus big top. Produced during his stay at a sanatorium in Clavadel, Switzerland, where he was recovering from tuberculosis, Éluard's crude and childlike crayon drawings have some resemblance to Kandinsky's abstractions.
The critic Piero Bisello said of the work, "It might have been inspired by a circus visit in the nearby Davos, or by photographs, or his childhood in Paris. It is formally very appealing and it reminds of later works by Miró: the variegated palette, the stylised and rounded depiction of living bodies in a flat environment typical of child scribbles, and the thick black outline of the figures. Moreover, there is a strong formal charge coming from [...] a roughness that doesn't merely remind [us] of the inexperience of the artist, but brings up an aesthetically interesting contrast between the neat marks and the blurry patches of colour".
Wax crayon on paper - Rosenberg & Co
Les Malheurs des immortels (Misfortunes of the Immortals) (1922)
In this strange, dream-like image, reminiscent of a nineteenth century wedding photograph, Ernst presents a formally-dressed male figure - with the head of an eagle - beside a seated woman, her face replaced by an inverted butterfly or moth. The towel draped over the birdman's arm suggests that he could be either a hairdresser or a waiter, while the snake provides the time-honoured symbol of the perils of temptation. The two friends collaborated on the creation of the poems, "playing like children at cutting and pasting and figuring out the world in order to remodel it", wrote French academic Sonia Assa.
Although André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto was yet to be published, Éluard and Ernst's second book collaboration, Les Malheurs des immortels (from which this image is taken) clearly presages the bizarre playfulness and interest in the subconscious of the movement to come. On each of the book's 20 double pages, there is a title, a poem and an Ernst collage. But, in a reversal of the conventional illustrated children's book, it is the poems that illustrate the image. As MoMA describes it on its website, "the book pairs the semantic dislocations of Éluard's poems with the visual disjunctions of Ernst's recent collages".
Assa adds, "turning the pages of Les Malheurs des immortels for the first time, we are struck by two obvious and competing impressions. One is the similarity of the collaborative work with sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books. On each double-page there is a picture, a title, and a poem: each of the three components, though perhaps seemingly unrelated, is expected to contribute to the global 'meaning'. The other impression is of eeriness combined with playfulness, of determined nonsense prevailing in pictures and texts where non-sequiturs are the law. We find ourselves in the midst of a familiar world gone awry, in the dimension of the heteroclite".
Portrait of Paul Éluard (1929)
This painting, considered one of the finest Surrealist portraits, unites two of the movement's most iconic figures: Dalí and Éluard. As Sotheby's described it in its auction catalogue, the "rich and complex symbolic imagery, along with its technical mastery [confirm] its importance as a document of this pivotal moment in the history of the Surrealist movement [and make it] impossible to resist the temptation to look for allusions to Gala [Éluard's then wife]".
Éluard sat for Dali during his 1928 stay at the painters home at Cadaques on the Spanish coast. Dali had become smitten with Gala and felt doubly frustrated; both at her marriage to the poet, and because of his own sexual inadequacies. Dali's secretary and biographer, Robert Descharnes, wrote: "Dalí felt flattered that Paul Eluard should have come to see him [and as] for Gala, she was a revelation - the revelation Dalí had been waiting for, indeed expecting. She was the personification of the woman in his childhood dreams to whom he had given the mythical name Galuchka".
Éluard's head floats like a helium balloon over a desolate landscape. Near the top, the head of a lion, often interpreted through Freudian dream symbolism as a statement of violence and raw desire, became a motif in Dali's paintings around this time. Meanwhile, also in the upper right of the composition, Dali represents a woman's face in the shape of an ewer which, in Freudian symbolism, likens the figure of the woman with that of a carrier or receptacle. The Sotheby's catalogue suggests that this "confrontation of the male and female symbols has been interpreted as the artist's neurotic apprehension of his relationship with Gala" and a further clue to this theme can be found in the image of the grasshopper. The insect held a personal meaning for the artist who as a child fantasized about being a "grasshopper boy", but the praying mantis was also a favorite symbol amongst Surrealists who were drawn to the idea of a male being devoured by the female, post-coitus. Additionally, the Éluards kept a collection of praying mantises, and, as the couple's guest, the artist had been able to observe the insect's behaviour first-hand. The portrait remained in the collection of Gala and Dalí until Gala's death in 1982 when it was given to Gala and Éluard's daughter, Cécile. The portrait sold for $22.4 million in 2011, setting the then new record for a Dalí painting.
Oil on cardboard - Dali Theatre and Museum, Figueres, Spain
Cadavre exquis (Exquisite Corpse) (c.1930)
This work, made up of seemingly disconnected symbols and motifs to form the shape of a human body, emerged from a favourite Surrealist parlour game. It involved passing a piece of paper round on which each of the participants would create a "body" consisting of a head, torso, arms, legs and feet, folding the paper over to hide their contributions before passing it on to the next player. The conflation of images points to the fundamental Surrealist notion of chance and automatism. In the abridged Surrealist dictionary (Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme) Breton wrote the following entry: "EXQUISITE CORPSE - A game in which several people compose a phrase or drawing together, folding the paper so that no one can see the previous collaboration or collaborations. The now-classic example, which gave the game its name, was the first phrase created in this method: the exquisite-corpse-drank-the new-wine".
The head of the body - drawn by Éluard's soon-to-be second wife, Nusch - is a pot out of which snakes appear; the neck and arms by Breton are musical symbols; the torso, by Hugo, is a landscape of trees and a waterfall. Éluard and Nusch were involved in drawing the bottom section in which their names appear among a succession of signs and symbols. These pieces were often ridiculed by the critics, but Breton defended the practice: "The malicious critics of the years 1925 to 1930 simultaneously complained that we were caught up in puerile games and suspected us of having individually (and laboriously) produced the game's 'monsters' in full sight - yet further proof of the critics' carelessness. What excited us about these games is that no single mind could have made what they created, and that they had a great deal of the power of drift, which poetry too often lacks. With the Exquisite Corpse we found a way - finally - to escape self-criticism and fully release the minds of metaphorical activity".
Graphite on paper - Tate Modern, London
Portrait of Paul Éluard (1932)
Valentine Hugo made her first mark on the Parisian avant-garde in 1913 when a number of her ballet drawings graced the foyer of the Champs-Elysèes Theatre on the opening night of Stravinsky's scadalous The Rights of Spring ballet. She worked subsequently on the stage design for Jean Cocteau's ballet Maries de la Tour Eiffel, in 1921, and with her husband, Jean Hugo (the grandson of one of France's greatest writers, Victor Hugo), on his staging of Romeo and Juliet, in 1926.
Hugo became directly involved with the Surrealist elite in 1928 and contributed to a number of the group's Cadavre Exquis drawings. She also created surrealist assemblages of her own and, with Marie-Berthe Ernst, was the first woman to feature in a Surrealist exhibition, at the Galerie Pierre Colle in 1933. She continued to exhibit with the Surrealists up until the beginning of the Second World War. Hugo was also part of group behind Editions Surréalistes, a series of self-published books (many made from luxurious materials and available only through subscription) featuring surrealist "objects of passion" (dismissed by many outsiders as pornography). Hugo became renowned for her illustrative work and produced images for books by Victor Hugo, Breton, Rimbaud, Archim d'Arnim, as well as many for Éluard.
Hugo hosted a number of salons during which she would make sketches of her guests who included the likes of Breton, Picasso and Éluard. She would, at a later date, transform her sketches into full portraits. In this dense, verdant, image, somewhat reminiscent of an archetypal character card in a Tarot set, Hugo depicts Éluard in four profiles. Recalling her earlier set designs for Romeo and Juliet, the poet is made up of sinuous lines like wood grain that merge into a tree trunk that, in turn, doubles as the robe of a nymph or goddess. Having divorced Jean Hugo, she moved into the same building as Éluard and Breton (in May 1932). She engaged in a tumultuous affair with Breton which ended so badly that Hugo attempted suicide. Happily, she called Éluard just in time for him to save her life. The pair shared a close bond after this episode and she became the major illustrator of Éluard's books, complimenting his poems with a series of fine, fantastical line drawings. It is said that her drawing, Le Harfang des Neiges (the Snowy Owls) was hung above the poet's bed when he died in 1952.
Pastel on paper - Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditeranée Métropole
Paul Éluard (1941)
According to the Musée Picasso website, Éluard was Picasso's best friend from 1935 until the poet's death. It records, "Following the disappearance of Apollinaire, Eluard was the only poet with who Picasso could converse and exchange or share ideas. Quickly, the surrealist poet became literally captivated by the demiurge-artist, 'who insists [on] seeing everything, on projecting onto the screen of man everything he can understand, admit or transform, figure and transfigure ... With Picasso, the walls come down'. Only Eluard's death, on 18 November 1952, would put an end to this brotherhood". Picasso's tender and fluid sketch of Éluard is an enduring record of what Musée Picasso heralds as a "sublime friendship".
Éluard was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery inside an area reserved for communists. The funeral (organised by the French Communist Party) was attended by Picasso and many others. The French government blocked the plan for a formal funeral procession to pass through the streets of Paris and so, Musée Picasso reports, "a multitude of friends, comrades and anonymous people gathered at the cemetery doors to pay their last tribute to the author of Liberté", adding that the funeral speeches "were given by Vercors (Jean Bruller), Louis Aragon, Laurent Casanova, André Delacour and Jean-Charles Gateau". Picasso, who was "visibly moved" was accompanied by Cécile Eluard and Russian-French writer Elsa Triolet. Musée Picasso describes how Picasso "stood watch over his friend's body and drew a dove with the inscription 'pour mon cher Paul Eluard" ('for my dear Paul Éluard')".
Black pencil on paper - Musée d'art et d'histoire Paul Éluard, Saint-Denis
Liberté, j'écris ton nom (Liberty, I Write your Name) (1953)
Éluard and Léger met and became friends after the Second World War. Both men were members of the Communist Party and Léger painted Éluard's portrait in 1947. In a reciprocal gesture, Éluard wrote the poems "Les constructeurs" and "A Fernand Léger" for Léger. In 1953, the year after the poet's death, Léger illustrated his concertina book Liberté, j'écris ton nom. Liberté was the first poem in the collection Poésie et vérité (1942) that Éluard had written it in the summer of 1941. He referred to it as a "poème de circonstance" ("a poem for a special occasion") because it gave vent to feelings of hope in the battle for freedom. The poem became exceptionally popular, with the word Liberté and the recurring line of verse "j'écris ton nom" ("I write your name"), stirring such strong feelings of patriotism and hope that the British Royal Air Force (RAF) dropped thousands of copies of the poem across occupied France. Liberté concludes:
"Upon the returned health
Upon the faded risk
Upon the hope without memory
I write your name
And for the power of a word
I restart my life
I was born to know you
To call you
Léger's book was designed to appeal to the widest public (especially to the working classes) and was conceived of thus in the design of brightly colored advertising banners. The book edition of the poem is that of a deluxe brochure with the "poème-objet" printed using a stencil art (pochoir) technique. Éluard's portrait dominates the front (and resembles the portrait painted by Léger in 1947). "All who gave to the Resistance in the fullest measure of their means cannot forget the large part played by ... Éluard in its organisation", wrote the French poet, Louis Parrot. Éluard "gave himself to it completely; at the same time that he was writing poems whose publication contributed immeasurably to the spiritual resurrection of France, he helped in rallying a great number of young writers".
À toute épreuve (Foolproof) (1958)
The Catalan surrealist Miró had developed his language of signs and symbols through his contact with the Paris Surrealist group during the 1920s. In Miró's art, the realms of the unconscious are expressed through amorphous abstract imagery and in the 1940s and 1950s, he applied his art increasingly to book illustration. He created landmark publications, most notably his illustrated collection of Éluard's poetry which is considered the high watermark of Miró's career as an illustrator. Éluard had written À toute épreuve at the time of the breakdown of his marriage to Gala, and though originally printed on four folded pages in the form of a leaflet, Éluard and Miró re-imagined it as an entirely new object. For Miró "Poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; it's an exchange of blood, a total embrace - without caution, without any thought of protecting yourself" and within this fertile mood of collaboration, Éluard re-distributed the lines of his poems, leaving white spaces for Miró to embellish.
The publisher, Gérald Cramer, had approached Miró with the idea of illustrating Éluard's poems in 1947. In accepting the project, Miró told Cramer "I have made some trials which have allowed me to see what it was to make a book and not merely to illustrate it. Illustration is always a secondary matter. The important thing is that a book have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble". Miró's undertaking was vast. Over an eleven year period, he created 233 blocks to create 79 woodcut prints and incorporated found materials including wire, wood and a variety of papers to create a selection of multi-textured collages. Miró told Cramer "I am completely absorbed by the damn book [and] I hope to create something sensational, the most important achievements in engraving since Gaugin".
Meltem Sahin, curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, writes: "In contrast to the depressed and pessimistic words of Eluard, Miro's illustrations [...] are optimistic [...] There is no hierarchy between words and lines. Because they share the same significance, the spectator is drawn from words to images simultaneously". Sahin adds that in Miró's illustrations we have "a celebration of love, joy and playfulness [that] can be observed through his usage of vigorous colors and buoyant figures [...] Only 20 copies were published with a premier edition, including additional woodcut prints of Miro". Sahin concludes that À Toute Épreuve "is a masterpiece in the history of Modern Illustrated Books that emerged from the duet of the two geniuses, in their own words, a masterpiece of 'Plastic harmony'".