This Day In Writing History
On September 7th, 1911, the legendary French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested and jailed as the prime suspect in a shocking robbery at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Apollinaire's close friend, the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, was also arrested and jailed as an accomplice to the crime. However, Picasso would be released immediately while Apollinaire languished in jail for almost a week. It would take months for the police to finally clear him of the charges.
It was a story so bizarre, it could have been the subject of one of Apollinaire's surrealist plays. In fact, it was Apollinaire who coined the term surrealism. He and his friend Pablo Picasso were members of the artistic community of Paris' Montparnasse district. Other members included such greats as Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.
As a writer and critic, Guillaume Apollinaire was a notorious radical. In addition to his surrealist plays, he had also written erotic novels. He also wrote L'Esprit Nouveau et les Poètes, (The New Spirit and the Poets) the manifesto of the surrealist movement. As a prominent literary critic, he recognized and defended the Marquis de Sade's contributions to French literature, calling him "the freest spirit that ever existed." In doing so, Apollinaire rescued de Sade's writings from obscurity and made them popular again - much to the outrage of the conservative establishment and the Church.
The story of Apollinaire's incarceration began over two weeks before his arrest. In a spectacular robbery at the Louvre Museum, thieves made off with priceless sculptures and paintings - including Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. The robbery shocked not only the French, but the entire art world as well. A week later, a man named Gery Pieret - Guillaume Apollinaire's former secretary - stole an Iberian statuette from the Louvre and went to the Paris Journal with the story.
Pieret had stolen the statuette for two reasons: to get publicity for himself and to demonstrate how easy it was to steal works of art from the Louvre. When Apollinaire read the story in the newspaper, he realized that the stolen statuette was the same one Pieret had asked him to keep at his house. Apollinaire began to panic. His friend Pablo Picasso panicked, too - Pieret had sold him two Iberian statuettes and asked him to keep them private.
Afraid that they would be implicated as art thieves, Apollinaire and Picasso decided to leave the country. Then they came up with another plan; they packed all the statuettes in a suitcase, waited until midnight, then went out to dump the suitcase in the Seine. When they saw that some people were out and about, even at that hour, they abandoned their plan, fearing that they'd be seen dumping stolen goods.
Finally, Apollinaire and Picasso came up with the only workable plan they could think of. Apollinaire went to the Paris Journal the next morning and gave them both the story and the stolen statuettes on the condition of anonymity. It didn't work. That night, Apollinaire found himself in jail, charged with stealing not only the statuettes, but the Mona Lisa as well. He was accused of being "chief of an international gang come to France to despoil our museums." The fact that Apollinaire had once called for the Louvre to be burned down didn't help his defense.
Under an intense police interrogation, Apollinaire crumbled and made a false confession, naming Pablo Picasso as his co-conspirator. When Picasso was brought in for interrogation, he denied even knowing Apollinaire, who stood handcuffed in the same room. Picasso would be released immediately, as there was no physical evidence against him. Apollinaire languished in jail for almost a week. Though he was finally released, he wouldn't be cleared of the charges for months.
The Mona Lisa would be recovered two years after it was stolen. At the time of the painting's recovery, it had been copied eight times, the forgeries sold to gullible art collectors. Even though he was cleared of all charges related to the Louvre robbery, Guillaume Apollinaire's reputation took a huge hit. The conservative establishment hated him even more, and the artistic community now despised him for crumbling under police interrogation and selling out his friend Pablo Picasso.
A few years after his arrest, Apollinaire would find redemption, at least in the eyes of the artistic community, when he volunteered for military service and fought bravely for France during World War 1. He would write of his legal troubles in his classic poem In Jail, which included these lines:
Before I got into my cell
I had to strip my body bare
I heard an ominous voice say Well
Guillaume what are you doing here
Lazarus steps into the ground
Not out of it as he was bid
Adieu Adieu O singing round
Of years and girls the life I led...
Quote Of The Day
"Without poets, without artists... everything would fall apart into chaos. There would be no more seasons, no more civilizations, no more thought, no more humanity, no more life even; and impotent darkness would reign forever. Poets and artists together determine the features of their age, and the future meekly conforms to their edit." - Guillaume Apollinaire
Today's video features a rare 1913 recording of Guillaume Apollinaire reading his classic poem, Le Pont Mirabeau. The reading is in the original French. To read the text in both French and English, click here.