The Morgan Library & Museum, New York
26 May – 24 September 2023
Frédéric-Louis Sauser’s first major poem was the shedding of his name. Born in 1887 in Switzerland, he left home in his teens, drifting to Saint Petersburg and New York City, where he christened himself Blaise Cendrars, a play on the French for ‘ember’ (blaire) and ‘ash’ (cendre). The combination, a two-word ode to potential and rebirth, would prove a fitting choice. As detailed in the recent exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum, ‘Blaise
Cendrars (1887–1961): Poetry Is Everything’, Cendrars made a career of challenging the formal limits of the written word. If fuel could combust, then why not a page? For Cendrars, every poem had the potential to transcend text, and every painting or film strip the possibility of becoming concrete poetry.
Curated by Sheelagh Bevan, ‘Poetry is Everything’ was the first exhibition to focus on Cendrars in the US and provided American audiences with an introduction to this lesser-known figure of transatlantic modernism. Although he refused to be formally affiliated with any movement or ‘ism’,
Cendrars orbited the major avant-garde circles of the early 1900s, befriending the likes of poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, and painter Fernand Léger. This show comes on the heels of a 2022 English-language biography of Cendrars and is part of a growing body of scholarship that aims to make his poetry accessible to Anglophone audiences. This is important work, since as the exhibit made clear, Cendrars’s oeuvre is a critical piece of modern art and literary history.
One of Cendrars’s most significant pieces, the monumental, illustrated poem, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France), was made in collaboration with Sonia Delaunay-Terk and is a stunning example of Simultanism, the term Delaunay-Terk gave to her optical experiments with contrasting and complementary colours. Written in 1913, after Cendrars had traded New York for Paris, it was the first ‘simultaneous book’. Printed on a single long vertical sheet, it joins descriptions of a surreal coming-of-age journey between Moscow, the North Pole and Paris, with abstract compositions by Delaunay-Terk intended to inject movement into the verses. Even behind a glass vitrine at the Morgan, the jagged stanzas undulated and oozed. The effect was like trying to read a poem on a pulsating dance floor, through the thick haze of the fog machine.
Soon after the publication of La Prose du Transsibérien, the First World War broke out. Dutiful to his adopted country, Cendrars travelled to the Western front to volunteer with the French Foreign Legion. He returned to Paris in 1915 less his right forearm, a battlefield casualty that forced him to begin writing with his left hand. As outlined in a section titled ‘The Poetics of War’, the loss inspired a series of haunting meditations on the dehumanisation of combat that would, in turn, inform the visual art of Léger and Mexican Cubist painter Ángel Zárraga. In a black-and-white illustration for Cendrars’s 1917 volume, Profond aujourd’hui (‘Profound Today’), Zárraga depicted a prosthetic man, precariously scrapped together from metal and wood. Held up by a crutch, he is a poignant mascot of the impotence felt by so many veterans of the Great War.
Though the memory of battle was painful, it could not stifle Cendrars’s curiosity or penchant for travel. As the rest of ‘Poetry is Everything’ surveyed, he spent the 1920s and ’30s experimenting across the arts: he worked with Cocteau and composer Erik Satie to promote experimental performance, voyaged across Brazil with Tarsila do Amaral, who provided the drawings for his 1924 Feuilles de route (‘Travel Notes’), and forayed into film and the graphic arts. A technological optimist at heart, Cendrars believed that movies and popular advertising spoke in a universal language that represented the next frontier of poetic expression and so he lent his words to intertitles for director Abel Gance, a luminary of the French silent cinema, and to posters by A.M. Cassandre, responsible for branding Dubonnet aperitifs.
“In every city on earth, the crowd which exits the theatres… crushes the palaces, the prisons,” Cendrars mused, in a breathless 1917-21 reflection on the power of mass media and of mass politics. Whether projected on a screen or pasted on a building, printed in ink or jotted down in pencil, composed of words, or images, or both, every poem could be a powder keg.
Hannah Stamler is a writer and PhD candidate in French History and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Princeton University.