Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)
The great French symbolist poet, his work inspired several revolutionary art movements of the early 20th century, such as Cubism , Futurism , Dadaism and Surrealism.
Mallarmé’s fin de siècle style anticipated fusion between poetry and the other arts , particularly music. The musical sound of the words often became as important as their meaning in his poetry, which influenced Claude Debussy ‘s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), music of Maurice Ravel and Darius Milhaud. In 1929, Man Ray ‘s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé was greatly influenced by Mallarmé’s work, prominently featuring the line “A roll of the dice will never abolish chance” (1897). Mallarmé saw Misia as the true spirit of La Revue Blanche and presented her with a fan on which he had written a poem decidated to her. She always carried it with her – as Jean Cocteau wrote many years later ‘of all her certificates and travel documents, this she always kept as her proof of identity, this fan was saved by that Polonaise out of all the wonderful mess, it lived beyond all her fortunes and the sonnets of Paul-Jean Toulet and Paul Verlaine’.
His quatrain written on Haiku fan for Misia:
‘Unfolding wing of paper
Flutter fully, if not long ago
You were initiated by Misia
To the storm and the joy of her piano’
Stéphane Mallarmé and his family had a country house at Valvins, where Misia was his neighbour. She remembered him as her father’s friend when she was just a child. Away from Paris and his many admirers, Misia had this dashing man all to herself and together they explored the surrounding countryside. She loved his poetry and was devoted to him, he loved her playing piano for him. Back in Paris, Mallarmé’s welcomed his friends to his home on Rue de Rome. His Tuesday gatherings (Mardis) attracted everybody of any importance in the artistic avant-garde, including Debussy, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Edvard Munch, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, James Whistler and Misia’s old paramour, Félicien Rops. Misia was one of few women who over the years attended Mallarmé’s Mardis. Mallarmé was both a brilliant, writer and orator but it was as an arbiter of style that he impressed her most. In fact, in 1874, he created a fashion magazine, one of the first of its kind, called La Dernière Mode (Latest Fashion) in which he wrote about clothes, accessories, fine food, cultural events and travel, using pseudonyms, such as Marguerite du Ponty or Miss Satin, he influenced the opinion of Tout-Paris.
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)
The Piano Kissed….
The piano kissed by a delicate hand
Gleams distantly in rose-grey evening
While with a wingtips’ weightless sound
A fine old tune, so fragile, charming
Roams discreetly, almost trembling,
Through the chamber She’s long perfumed.
What is this sudden cradle song
That gradually lulls my poor being?
What do you want of me, playful one?
What do you wish, slight vague burden
Drifting now, dying, towards the window
Opening a little on a patch of garden?
Misia liked a small café in the Place de la Madeleine, where she would often reserve the back room for her friends. It was here that she met and became close to the poet, Paul Verlaine. She loved his poetry because of its haunting simplicity and musical language. As she wrote in her memoirs: ”He could transform simple words into priceless treasures.” Verlaine was one of the greatest representatives of the French Decadent movement. He began writing poetry at an early age and published his first poem when he was nineteen. As a young man he frequented the fashionable literary salons of Paris. Later, when he met Arthur Rimbaud , he abandoned his wife Mathilde and their son, preferring the company of his new lover. Rimbaud and Verlaine’s stormy affair took them to London and Brussels, where in July 1873, in a drunken, jealous rage, he injured Rimbaud by firing two shots at him. His poems collected in Romances sans paroles (1874), published while Verlaine was imprisoned, were inspired by nostalgic recollections of Mathilde as well as the escapade with Rimbaud. Following his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher. While in England he produced another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English he fell in love with one of his pupils Lucien Létinois. Verlaine was devastated when Létinois died of typhus and descended into drug addiction , alcoholism , and poverty. He lived in slums, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafes. It was La Revue Blanche that started promoting his early poetry as groundbreaking, which in turn contributed to his rediscovery by the French public. Suddenly, Verlaine’s lifestyle and groundbreaking poetry started attracting admiration and the people’s love for his art was able to resurrect support and bring him an income. In 1894 he was elected France’s “Prince of Poets”. He also discovered he had become a leader of the Symbolist movement, alongside Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire.
He inspired the works of other artists and composers around la Revue Blanche. It wasn’t surprising that Misia’s favourite composer, Claude Debussy, set to music Clair de lune and many other poems, so did Reynaldo Hahn Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel.
Verlaine’s drug dependence and alcoholism caught up with him and took a toll on his life. Misia visited him regularly in the hospital until, on 8th January 1896, when he passed away.
Emile Zola (1840-1902)
French novelist, playwright, journalist, the practitioner of the literary school of naturalism. After his first major novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola wrote series Les Rougon-Macquart . Germinal in 1885, then the three “cities” – Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), and Paris (1897). Zola was a regular contributor to La Revue Blanche and a frequent guest at Natanson’s gatherings. He became a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus. He encapsulated his defence of Dreyfus in a famous article J’accuse , a classic defence of human rights. Zola led the literary bourgeoisie and organized cultural dinners with Guy de Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau and other writers at his luxurious villa in Médan, near Paris. Misia and Thadée were also invited to the less formal affairs, the Émile Zola’s dinners on the Rue de Bruxelles, at the foot of Montmartre. Here the attraction was not only the sparkling conversation, but the dinner itself. Misia remembered well Zola’s woodcocks stewed in champagne but thought the conversation had become rather dull when it started being dominated by the interminable Dreyfus Affair and “Bread for the Poor” or other vital social issues of the day. ‘I found this very embarrassing’, she said. ‘Why not deal with the agenda before consuming all that fine food? Impressive gastronomic experience, before beginning to discuss “Free Bread for the Poor” or other vital social issues of the day.
The new interest in socialist movement was getting a momentum not just amongst the intelectuals of the day. Suddenly, it had its enthusiasts amongst the salons. Misia looked with skepticism at this new fashion to talk about inequality and that the working classes should participate in cultural events: ‘How was it they had not realised until now, that the people had a right to culture? Shame on such civilisation! Not a moment should be lost in organising artistic entertainment which would be within everyone’s reach.’ [i
Alfred Jarry (1873-1907)
When the dramatist Alfred Jarry died in 1907 at the age of thirty-four, he was a legendary figure in Paris – more because of his scandalous behavior than his literary achievements. Now, Jarry is considered as as one of the leading figures of the artistic avant-garde. Alfred’s most famous work was his play Ubu Roi (1896)as well as a string of outlandish “ubuesque” anecdotes, often recounted with wild inaccuracy.Sert (1953: 58) He is often called a forerunner of Dada, Surrealist and Futurist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Jarry wrote in a variety of styles, prefiguring postmodern philosophy and the idea of ‘theatre of absurd’ and postmodern philosophy. Some call Jarry ‘the precursor of Punk’. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, essays and speculative journalism.
Monsieur Ubu Roi – woodcut by Alfred Jarry
Whe Ubu Roi premiered at Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Œuvres, King Ubu Roi stepped forward and intoned the opening word, “Merdre!” The audience reacted with shouting, booing, this was countered by cheers and applause by the more degenerate contingent. Only the dress rehearsal and opening night performance were held, and the play was not revived until after Jarry’s death.
Alfred Jarry was a regular contributor to La Revue and later became its book reviewer. When he was putting the finishing touches to his revolutionary play, Ubu Roi, which was, as Misia describes, “a source of delight to us and of despair to Mallarmé.” Jarry would often turn up at the La Revue office, his hair dyed green, wearing a pink turban and a woman’s blouse (because, he said, he found “men’s linen too confusing”), arm-in-arm with Toulouse-Lautrec— the diminutive Jarry, barely five foot tall, towering above the four and a half foot Lautrec. Jarry, who was also called “Clown-king of the Bohemians”, just like Lautrec was an absintheur. They were sometimes joined by “another doomed figure”, that arch-decadent Oscar Wilde, perhaps at Vachette’s, a favourite bar of Oscar’s on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, or at the Irish and American bar that has since been absorbed into the neighbouring Café Weber.
Jarry often visitted the Natanson’s country house. Misia delighted in his eccentricity, which knew no bounds, especially in the wake of Ubu Roi’s success, when he began to assume the mantle of King Ubu, to the point that he now gestured regally and even used the royal we to describe himself. He had also adopted the periphrastic style popular with Homer, calling a bird “that which cheeps” and a bicycle “that which rolls”. And at his own summer residence, a hut on the River Seine, at Le Coudray-Montceaux, not too far from Le Relais, he had cut holes in the floorboards so he could catch ‘that which swims’, as he referred to fish, without getting out of bed; for meals he would eat backwards; dessert to soup.
One day when Jarry cycled across to Villeneuve to visit Misia, she introduced him to her neighbour, Madame Mirbeau, the wife of Octave Mirbeau, who invited them to lunch the very next day. Madame had a secret. But it was not alluded to by Misia, who knew very well that in a not too distant past, before she had metamorphosed into Madame Mirbeau, she had been a high-class ‘cocotte’, who once made a bet that she would cross the Place de Concorde completely naked. She won and was generously rewarded. On the other side of the square a carriage awaited her with a warm ermine coat and a box of jewels. Jarry, who had always taken very seriously the business of taking nothing seriously, came dressed in an undershirt and a pair of Rachilde’s velvet-laced shoes covered in mud. Madame Mirbeau looked at his shoes in disgust and couldn’t hide her annoyance at the sight of the filthy floor, the image of her bourgeois virtue, as Jarry saw it, that he proceeded to create after he entered her house. Jarry’s revulsion of anything bourgeois was legendary, as was his mastery of meaningless, often surreal, conversation. Conversation made more bizarre by his habit of referring to himself in the third person. He said, “Don’t worry, Madame, Jarry has another pair, much dirtier.” Madame Mirbeau served roast beef, Jarry ignored the slices and grabbed the whole joint of meat. There was total silence, an angry look from the hostess and a “strange wink” from Jarry, while the other guests struggled desperately to stifle their laughter. Knowing the hostess’s story Misia couldn’t help but smile at her reaction to Jarry’s behaviour.
Alfred Jarry was a heroic figure to his artist friends, even to Picasso, who after Jarry’s death bought some of his manuscripts and one of his famous pistols, which he always carried with him at night.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922)
Marcel Proust attached great importance to thousands of often petty stories about the society to which Misia belonged, probably for that reason he always wanted to maintain contact with her. She often teased him about the great importance he attached to social gossip. “She belongs to those worldy people, who amuse me”, he said, “anyhow, they can be only of an interest to help me explore the psychology of my snobbism”. Serge Lifar was convinced that Proust was in love with Misia Sert, but “She burned his letters, because she didn’t love him”, he said.
In In Search of Lost Time Proust based two of his characters on Misia. Princess Yourbeletieff, the exquisite Fairy Godmother of Ballets Russes and manipulative Mme Verdurin who is always by the side of the exquisite Princess Yourbeletieff, as if though the two characters and Misia were one:
“..the prodigious flowering of the Russian Ballet, revealing one after another Bakst, Nijinski, Benois, the genius of Stravinski, Princess Yourbeletieff, the youthful sponsor of all these new great men, appeared bearing on her head an immense, quivering aigrette, unknown to the women of Paris, which they all sought to copy, one might have supposed that this marvellous creature had been importted in their innumerable baggage, and as their most priceless treasure, by the Russian dancers; but when presently, by her side, in her stage box, we see, at every performance of the ‘Russians’ seated lilke a true fairy godmother, unknown until that moment to the aristocracy, Mme Verdurin, we shall be able to tell the society people who naturally supposed that mme verdurin had recently entered the country with Diaghilev’s troupe, that this lady had already existed in different periods…”
“Mme Verdurin, but with a very different result socially, was to take her place in the front row. Just as she had been seen by the side of Mme Zola, immediately under the bench, during the trial in the Assize Court, so when the new generation of humanity, in their enthusiasm for the Russian ballet, thronged to the Opéra, crowned with the latest novelty in aigrettes, they invariably saw in a stage box Mme Verdurin by the side of Princess Yourbeletieff. And just as, after the emotions of the law courts, people used to go in the evening to Mme Verdurin’s…..so now, llittle inclined for sleep after the enthusiasm aroused by the Schéhérezade or Prince Igor, they repaired to Mme Verdurin’s where under the auspices of Princess Yourbeletieff and their hostess an exquisite supper brought together every night the dancers themselves, who had abstained from dinner so as to be more resilient…”
Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)
He struck up a lifelong friendship with Misia whom he met in 1910. Through Misia he met Serge Diaghilev. He was overwhelmed by Ballets Russes and Nijinsky. Years later, he would remember Diaghilev’s admonition: ”Surprise me.”
Perhaps he did so in 1917 when he wrote the story for Cubist ballet Parade, with music by Erik Satie, décor by Picasso and choreography by Leonide Massine. It was premiered to great acclaim by Ballets Russes in 1917.
Jean Cocteau wrote a novel Thomas l’Imposteur inspired by his experiences during the 1st world war when he went to the front to rescue injured soldiers in ambulances organised by Misia. The Princesse de Bormes, based on Misia Sert, helps wounded soldiers by evacuating them from the front and bringing them to her villa in Paris for medical care. However, the authorities will not give the Princess and the soldiers passes to return to Paris. The situation changes when an innocent 16-year-old boy, Guillaume Thomas de Fontenoy, joins the authorities and is mistaken as the nephew of the popular General de Fontenoy. Thomas is able to use his position of posing as the general’s nephew to cut through the red tape, in order to help the Princess. She is entranced by Thomas, and her daughter, Henriette, falls in love with him.the injured in ambulances organised by Misia. In this novel he based the character of Princess de Bormes on Misia.
His play Les Monstres Sacrés was shown on 17th February, 1940. Jean Cocteau again returned to the subject of Misia, replacing Princess de Bormes in Thomas l’Imposteur by an aging actress Esther in Les Monstres Sacrés. She is still a beautiful diva, always dominant, witty and compassionate. The character of Liane, just like Roussy Mdivani is impatient in realizing her life’s plans. Belonging to younger generation brought up on Freud and crime novels she is often vulgar and blunt. Florent, Esther’s husband, just like JoJo Sert is an opportunist, a prankster and brilliant at his craft. In the play Esther is told by Liane that her and Florent are in love. Esther doesn’t believe it, yet decides to take Liane under her wing and to teach her what she doest best – acting. Liane is an able pupil, her fantasy becomes reality. Esther looses her husband and her home. Later, after becoming a celebrated actress, Liane gets rid of Florian, who returns to his wife. Cocteau was a prolific writer as well as a poet, a film maker and a painter.
Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)