Guillaume Apollinaire Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Apollinaire left an enduring mark on the poetry and painting of the twentieth century. He was a spokesman for the symbolists and an exponent of Surrealism; in fact, the word “Surrealist” appeared for the first time in his writing. His poem “La Jolie Rousse” (the pretty redhead) became and has remained the charter of free verse.

Early Life

The man known since his twentieth year as Guillaume Apollinaire was the illegitimate son of Angélique Alexandrine de Kostrowitzky, a member of the Polish nobility whose family had taken refuge at the papal court. She first registered her son under a false name but a month later had him baptized as Guillaume Albert Wladimir Alexandre Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky. The mystery of his father’s identity lasted for seventy years; he has since been identified as Francesco Flugi d’Aspermont of a family originally from Switzerland. Wilhelm, or Kostro as he was called at different times, had a younger brother, Albert, before his mother’s liaison ended a few years later. For a time, the father’s brother, a member of the Benedictine Order, helped with the expenses of the boys’ education. They were sent to Catholic schools in Monaco, Cannes, and Nice, where they were exceedingly devout and diligent.

In 1897 and 1898, Wilhelm became fascinated by ancient history, by magic, and by erotic literature. By that time he was apparently a militant atheist, treating religion satirically and grossly, although at times nostalgically, and steeping himself exuberantly in exoticism and obscene writings. The knowledge thus gained served as material for his poetry and stories.

By 1900, Wilhelm was living with his mother in Paris and making a precarious living in minor secretarial jobs. The following year, he went, as a tutor to the young daughter of the Viscountess of Milhau, to Germany, where he fell hopelessly in love with Annie Playden, a blonde, English governess who shared his duties. Her parents refused to allow her to marry Wilhelm, but this attachment, along with some extensive traveling in Europe, resulted in a series of stories collected in L’Hérésiarque et Cie (1910; The Heresiarch and Co., 1965). It contained the first tale, written in 1902, that he had signed with the name Guillaume Apollinaire. His love for Annie Playden also inspired his most famous poem, “La Chanson du mal-aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly Loved”). All of his life, his love affairs were to provide inspiration for his best poetry.

Life’s Work

By 1903, Apollinaire had become friends with André Salmon and Alfred Jarry. The three men founded a small review, Le Festin d’ésope, which lasted for nine issues. About the same time, Apollinaire met Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso, who was to be his friend for many years. The result was a significant artistic and literary collaboration. Now too Apollinaire made the acquaintance of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, with whom he drank, played cards, and visited hashish dens and brothels. He became increasingly well known in Paris cafés as a friendly and ebullient talker. The usual subjects of conversation were aesthetics and painting, and everyone was feverishly preoccupied with innovation. In 1905, Apollinaire’s first writing on art appeared: two articles on Picasso.

In 1909, after a long delay, Mercure de France published the fifty-nine stanzas of “La Chanson du mal-aimé.” Apollinaire’s place in the literary world was now secure. From 1911 on, he wrote a regular column for Mercure de France, usually championing new painters. In addition, he had been since 1910 the regular art critic for L’Intransigeant. In his articles, he sought to establish his authority by discovering, explaining, and promoting the newest movements in literature and painting: He campaigned for the Fauves, the Unanimists, Henri Matisse, Picasso, Georges Braque, and Alfred Jarry. He became the principal spokesman for cubism.

In 1911, Apollinaire had the harrowing experience of being imprisoned for five days on the strength of a false accusation that he had received and hidden objects stolen from the Louvre. He was desolated. Despite his acquittal, newspapers continued to attack him; his position as leader of the avant-garde was threatened as was his legal right to stay in France. Added to these worries was his lack of funds. His spirits revived with the invitation to become associate editor of a new review, Soirées de Paris. His first article advised the abandonment of “likeness” and of subject matter in painting. He could not be cowed.


(The entire section is 1907 words.)