In 1912, Frédéric Sauser arrived in Paris from New York with a sheaf of experimental poems and a new identity, Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961) — “a name symbolizing his aesthetic goals: to burn and to create poetry from the ashes of his life,” according to the Morgan Library & Museum. Sauser, who was born in the watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, had a trilingual childhood in Basel and Naples. A terrible student and a runaway, his father sent him to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work for a traveling salesman. While there he witnessed the Revolution of 1905, and began writing poetry in the city’s library. Over the next seven years, he traveled to Antwerp, London, Brussels, and New York, where he wrote the first of his three great long documentarian poems, “Les Paques a New York” (Easter in New York), dated April 1912. In 1913, shortly after moving to Paris and becoming part of an avant-garde scene that included the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Fernand Léger, Cendrars wrote his second great long poem, based on his time in Russia, “La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France” (The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France).
Along with Apollinaire’s poem, “Zone,” written in the same year, “The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France” dispensed with punctuation and embraced the inventions of the rapidly changing modern world, commenting on “the electric bells of the New York Public Library” (Cendrars) and lamenting that in outdated Europe “even the automobiles are antiques” (Apollinaire). Both are travel poems operating on a different scale, with Cendrars and his companion on a train that travels from Moscow to Siberia to China, the North Pole, and Paris, and Apollinaire walking from sunrise to sunrise in Paris. The authors’ cinematic poems were embraced by poets associated with the New York School, including John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, and John Godfrey.
According to Sonia Delaunay, Cendrars’s poem “gave [her] a push, a shock.” What she and Cendrars created together is the reason to visit the exhibition Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961): Poetry Is Everything at The Morgan Library & Museum, as it is one of the most innovative artist-poet collaborations ever produced. Together, using different colored inks and typefaces, Delaunay and Cendrars made what they called “the first simultaneous book,” La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, with text by Cendrars and illustrations by Delaunay. Instead of printing the poem sequentially in a book, they made an accordion-like object nearly seven feet high in which illustration and text are presented together. Being confronted with so much information at once is dizzying, but in an exhilarating way. Like a street map, the entire poem folds up and fits inside a parchment portfolio hand-painted by Delaunay.
Originally, Cendrars and Delaunay planned on printing an edition of 150, as the total height of the press run would be equal to that of the Eiffel Tower. Most likely 75 or fewer were actually printed, and few survived. The one on view at the Morgan was inscribed by Delaunay to the American painter Morgan Russell, who, with Stanton Macdonald Wright, founded a style of abstract painting known as Synchronism, which was influenced by the Delaunays’ interest in the synthesis of geometry, color, and light, for which Apollinaire coined the term Orphism.
While La Prose du Transsibérien is the center of the exhibition, much of the material was new to me. I knew that Cendrars had integrated the language of advertising and journalism into his poetry, and was influenced by the rapid tempo of jazz. However, I was not aware of the range of artists who illustrated his writings, including the great Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral or the Polish-born French Jewish artist Moïse Kisling. Along with books, the exhibition includes Robert Delaunay’s beautiful ink and graphite drawing, “The Tower” (1910); a poster of the Eiffel Tower for a performance of works by Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Erik Satie, and Darius Milhaud; a painting by Russell; a program for the American tour of the Swedish Ballet, featuring The Creation of the World, with an illustration by Fernand Léger; and poster advertisements by A.M. Cassandre, including a plate from Le spectacle est dans la rue, (The show is in the street), which contains a text by Cendrars. The exhibition also features translations of Cendrars’s poems by Ron Padgett, including the entire “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France,” which is projected on an LED screen. I have one quibble: I wish a brochure or some kind of publication accompanied the show. Still, this small, dynamic exhibition should not be missed.
Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961): Poetry Is Everything continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through September 24. The exhibition was curated by Sheelagh Bevan, Morgan Library & Museum Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator, Department of Printed Books & Bindings.