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December 16, 2017

Apollinaire, Picasso, Mona Lisa

On this day in 1911 the poet-playwright-art critic Guillaume Apollinaire was jailed, suspected of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. The circumstantial evidence which pointed to Apollinaire also pointed to his friend Picasso, and he too was arrested. While Picasso was released almost immediately, Apollinaire was held in jail for almost a week, and not cleared until months later; the painting was not recovered until 1913, and not before eight forgeries had been sold to collectors.

The story is a strange one, though perhaps not for one with Apollinaire's avant garde lifestyle. The painting had been stolen on August 21st; a week later, a former secretary of Apollinaire's named Gery Pieret went to the Paris Journal with an Iberian statuette he had stolen from the Louvre, to get publicity for himself and to demonstrate how easy such thieving was. Apollinaire read the story in the paper, realized that the statuette had been kept at his house, and began to worry. Picasso worried more: Pieret had sold him two Iberian statues several years earlier, advising him to keep them in a private place.

Terrified that they would be implicated in some art-theft ring, Apollinaire and Picasso first planned to flee. Reconsidering, they packed the statuettes in a suitcase, waited for midnight and headed for the Seine, planning to drown them when no one was looking. It seemed to them that everyone was looking, and they returned home to work on a new plan. This one had Apollinaire going to the Paris Journal the next morning, where he handed over their statuettes and story in return for a guarantee of anonymity. By evening he was in jail, accused of being "chief of an international gang come to France to despoil our museums."

Some accounts of these and subsequent events describe Apollinaire standing before the magistrate, after his arrest and interrogation, as a lamentable wreck," one so rattled by the authorities that he apparently "attested to everything they wanted." Picasso, just as rattled, went in the opposite direction: when brought in for questioning before the same magistrate, and in Apollinaire's handcuffed presence, he apparently denied even knowing his friend. Apollinaire's own account might explain why, six years later in his program notes for the Cocteau-Picasso-Massine-Satie ballet, Parade, he would coin the term "sur-realism":
    What a surprise to find myself suddenly stared at like a strange beast! All at once fifty cameras were aimed at me: the magnesium flashes gave a dramatic aspect to this scene in which I was playing a role.... I think I must have laughed and wept at the same time.
Some biographers go much further, claiming that such an experience was bound to leave shaken "a man whose position in society is as equivocal as Apollinaire's: bastard, foreigner, writer of erotica, poet." Some conclude that Apollinaire volunteered for the French army in WWI -- "The sky is starry with Boche shells / The marvelous forest where I live is giving a ball" -- in order to erase such a stigma. From Apollinaire's poem, "In Jail":
    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....

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