Among all the 20th century writers, Blaise Cendrars is certainly one of those who shared and interacted most with artists from different disciplines. Between 1912 and 1914, being an avant-garde poet leads him to meet up with the most important Parisian artists of his generation. Upon Marc Chagall’s request, Cendrars gives French titles to a series of his paintings, while Robert Delaunay encourages him to paint about thirty promising paintings. In his “elastic poems” (1912-1919), Cendrars reacts to the works of art of Alexandre Archipenko, Joseph Csaky, Marc Chagall, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Roger de La Fresnaye and Fernand Léger, while also publishing critical articles dedicated to the problems of modern painting and to its main leaders.
As a true bibliophile, Cendrars asks major artists, such as Moïse Kissling, Amedeo Modigliani, Tarsila do Amaral and Angel Zarraga to embellish and illustrate his books, in addition to being a remarkable book designer and publisher himself at the Éditions de la Sirène at the end of the 1910s. Together with the artists he has close relationships with, he develops fascinating and innovative books, that mark a before and an after in the publishing history of the 20th century : La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, “first simultaneous book” with Sonia Delaunay (1913), or La Fin du Monde filmée par l’Ange Notre Dame with Fernand Léger (1919).
Right after World War I, Cendrars discovers a passion for cinema, shared with film director Abel Gance. He assists him and acts as an extra in J’accuse (1919), before becoming his personal assistant on the set up of La Roue in 1923. He introduces him to composer Arthur Honegger who will write the film’s score (later condensed in his famous Pacific 231 symphonic piece) and shoots the film’s making-of. He even directs a complete film in Italy, Vénus noire, which unfortunately seems to be lost.
Fascinated by music (he was himself a talented pianist, and envisioned starting a professional career as a composer), Cendrars writes the argument of the African ballet La Création du monde (1923), brought to the stage by Rolf de Maré’s Swedish Ballets, with music by Darius Milhaud and costumes and stage sets by Fernand Léger. He also initiates another project with Erik Satie, which will be revamped by Francis Picabia into the famous Dadaistic ballet Relâche (1924). Fascinated by all aspects of modern life, Cendrars also gets involved in projects in advertising, first with Sonia Delaunay and then with the famous poster and font designer Cassandre, or radio broadcasting, writing radio plays and recording elaborated interview programs.
Curious and open minded, Cendrars contributes to the awakening of interest for the African culture in Europe with La Création du monde and his Anthologie nègre (1921). In the middle of the 1920s, he discovers Brazil, which he will soon consider as his second homeland. Invited as a guest by poet Oswald de Andrade and painter Tarsila do Amaral, Cendrars plays an important role in the birth of Brazilian modernism, awakening a young generation of artists and poets to modernist issues and helping them rediscover the virtual power of their own culture, thus leading to the Pau-Brasil manifest. On a personal scale, his three stays in Brazil will have a profound influence on him and lead to numerous projects, including poems, a film project and various prose texts, among them a book illustrated with photographs by Jean Manzon.
In 1925, Cendrars writes his first successful novel, L’or, soon followed by Moravagine and Dan Yack. He takes some distance with the art world but doesn’t lose interest in the various aspects of modern life, about which he writes in texts published in wide-circulation newspapers. Soon well-known as a reporter (he is sent on the first trip of the ship Normandie for Paris Soir), Cendrars takes advantage of the new illustrated press to build his image as an adventurer and travel writer in the 1930s. After three years of silence, Cendrars comes back to writing in 1943 with L’Homme foudroyé (published in 1945), the first volume of his memoirs, where his experience and friendship with the avant-garde artists comes back as a literary material, reinterpreted and mixed with invented anecdotes and even the description of fictional artists or works of art. Some real works are also a springboard for his writing, like the painter Valdo Barbey’s engravings for Bourlinguer (1948) or Robert Doisneau’s photographs (La Banlieue de Paris, 1949, the photographer’s first published album).
The M.T. Abraham Foundation was proud to take part in this exhibition by loaning the painting “Three Apes in an Orange Grove” by Henri Rousseau from its collection.