Pierre Albert-Birot, born on April 22, 1876 in Angoulême and died on July 25, 1967 in Paris, is a poet, sculptor, painter, typographer and man of theater French. Inveterate avant-gardist during the First World War, through the magazine Sic (1916-1919) of which he was the founder and director, he became the defender of futurism. The Dadaists considered him as one of theirs, without him ever subscribing to it. He declared himself founder of the “nunic” school (from the Greek adverb νῦν
If he was mocked by the surrealists for his pretensions to illustrate himself in too many arts, decried by Philippe Soupault as an extravagant without real poetic talent, he attracted the praise and friendships of Max Jacob and Apollinaire. Later, Gaston Bachelard will praise the depth of his philosophical views, and he will mark of his influence various poets, such as Jean Follain, Pascal Pia, and until today Valérie Rouzeau.
Provincial childhood and adolescence
Pierre Albert Birot (he has not yet added his middle name to his name) was born on April 22, 1876 in Angoulême. His mother, Marguerite, “embroidered, played the piano and sang”. His father, Maurice Birot, “never stopped setting up businesses, but they were not very solid. The family spent their summers not far from Angoulême, at the Château de Chalonnes. There, the young Albert-Birot, still a high school student, set up a puppet theater, wrote plays and invited the village to performances.
The father having done bad business, the family leaves the castle of Chalonnes and settles in Bordeaux. Pierre receives private lessons in Greek, and gives his teacher “a special wooden cigar holder made by him with a pedal machine as big as a sewing machine”. In the same year, her father left home to live with a friend of his wife. Finding herself without resources, Marguerite set up a family boarding house. The house then welcomes young dancers from the neighboring theater who come to live in the room next to Pierre. The latter spies on them, naked, through a crack in the wall. However, the boarding house was not enough to cover the family”s needs, so they moved to Paris at the end of 1892. The mother improvised herself as a seamstress.
First years in Paris
In Paris, Albert Birot, barely sixteen years old, met the sculptor Georges Achard, who admitted him to the École des Beaux-Arts and introduced him to Falguière. Wanting to become a painter, Albert-Birot met Gustave Moreau and Gérôme at this time. It is finally sculpture that captures his interest: he leaves the École des Beaux-Arts, works on sculpture in the studio of Georges Achard, meets Alfred Boucher. In the latter”s studio, an Italian sculptor taught him how to reduce marble.
Having received a grant from the city of Angoulême, he set up his studio in a shack on Boulevard du Montparnasse. At the same time, he attended classes at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, in particular the philosophy class of Alfred Espinas.
In 1896 he married the sister of the painter Georges Bottini, Marguerite, with whom he had four children.
He exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français for the first time in 1900. Seven years later, his sculpture The Widow was bought by the State for the cemetery of Issy-les-Moulineaux, of which it is still the main monument today. For food purposes he sculpted Parisian facades (there are visible ones around the Champ-de-Mars and in Neuilly-sur-Seine). From 1900, he also worked as an art restorer in an antique shop, a job he kept for the rest of his life and which provided the material for his novel Rémy Floche, employé.
During 1912, he frequented the Parisian Esperantist circles and wrote poems in Esperanto. It is perhaps there that he met the musician Germaine de Surville.
The same year, he abandons his children. His daughters entered the Orphanage of Arts in Courbevoie, his sons the Artistic Fraternity. He married Germaine in 1913.
The SIC years
Reformed during the Great War due to respiratory insufficiency, Pierre Albert Birot was, according to his own expression, “really born” on the occasion of the creation of the magazine SIC (Sons Idées Couleurs, Formes), in 1916, the moment when he took on his artist”s name, adding his middle name to his family name.
The title of the magazine, represented by a woodcut SIC framed by two symmetrical Fs, has two meanings; it is first of all the Latin absolute yes, “will to oppose constructively to the war negatives of the human values” and more generally, will “to affirm itself by an integral acquiescence to the world”, it is finally the acronym of its subtitle “Sounds Ideas Colors, Forms”, which for the moment is only the expression of the multiple activities of the couple Albert-Birot – Sounds for the music of Germaine, Ideas for the poetry, Colors for the painting, and Forms for the sculpture, of Pierre -, but will become soon the watchword of a ” synthesis of the modernist arts. “.
The first issue, sold for twenty cents, will be published in January. For the time being, it has been entirely written and illustrated by Pierre Albert-Birot. The publication is surprisingly modern, especially from a painter and sculptor trained by the traditionalist Achard, from a self-taught “Adamic poet” who has never yet rubbed shoulders with the avant-garde. “Our will: To act. To take initiatives, not to wait for it to come from beyond the Rhine”, such is the first of the “First Words” posted by SIC; further on we read this affirmation of originality as a condition of Art, “Art begins where imitation ends”, which is not without reminding us, although in a much less radical form, of the rejection of Dada – which will come into the world only one month later in Zurich – of any imitation and of the literary tradition and of life. A month ahead of time, Albert-Birot is not far from the vitalist affirmation of the Dadaists not to imitate life but to create life.
But above all, one must see in the publication of this first number the appeal, the outstretched hand of an isolated artist to avant-garde circles of which he is at the same time totally unknown and ignorant. When he mocks Claudel by qualifying him of “beautiful poet of the day before yesterday”, and continues by “I would like to make the acquaintance of a poet of today”, it is necessary to take to the letter this last affirmation.
The one who first answered this call, and through whom Albert-Birot “who knew no one, in a few months knew everyone”, was the futurist painter Gino Severini.Albert-Birot and Severini give two contradictory versions of their meeting. According to the first, they had their studio in the same building, their respective wives who met first, and it was through them that Severini could hold the first issue of SIC in his hands. According to the Futurist painter, the meeting took place at the opening of the first exhibition of Art plastique de la Guerre and other earlier works that he held at the Boutet de Monvel gallery from 15 January to 1 February 1916. However, the two artists became “very friendly” and Severini offered a reproduction of his Train arriving in Paris for the second issue of Sic. Under Severini”s impulse, Sic definitively joined the avant-garde, as Albert-Birot explains:
The second issue, published in February, devoted to Futurism, reports on the Severini exhibition. Albert-Birot writes: “The painting until then fraction of the extent becomes with the futurism fraction of the time.”
Through Severini, Albert-Birot met Apollinaire and thus entered the Parisian artistic life. Apollinaire had his Tuesdays at the Café de Flore; SIC had his Saturdays at rue de la Tombe-Issoire, where Apollinaire came and brought his friends: André Salmon, Reverdy, Serge Férat, Roch Grey, Max Jacob, Modigliani, Cendrars. Saturdays will also be frequented by the Russian painters Alexandre Orloff, Léopold Survage, Ossip Zadkine, and the very young Aragon, Soupault, Raymond Radiguet. So many collaborators for the fifty-four issues of SIC.
Open to all the avant-gardes, the magazine plays during the four years of its publication a role of foreground as for the artistic creation of the time. With contributions from Apollinaire, who offered several unpublished poems, including “L”Avenir” from number 4, it was enriched by contributions from Cubist sympathizers: poems by Reverdy, prints by Serge Férat, and reports on an exhibition by the Fauvist André Derain. It also serves largely as a Parisian forum for futurists, and hosts the texts of Severini, Luciano Folgore and Gino Cantarelli, prints by Depero, Prampolini and Giacomo Balla, as well as the scores of Pratella. In addition, Philippe Soupault published his first poems, including his very first, which he had sent to Apollinaire, Départ, under the pseudonym of Philippe Verneuil in the number 15. Louis Aragon (as a critic), Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Raymond Radiguet also took their first steps towards the Zurich Dadaists, and Tzara found there, as well as in Nord-Sud at the same time, the ground for his first publications in France. At the same time, Pierre Albert-Birot collaborated on the second and third issues of Dada, Tzara”s journal.
SIC is also an editorial success, with a regular and sustained frequency of publication (monthly throughout 1916), and an exceptional longevity compared to the other avant-garde reviews of the time. SIC differs from its main competitor, Pierre Reverdy”s Nord-Sud, in that it is financed only by its readers while Nord-Sud is financed by the patron Jacques Doucet. Carried, therefore, by its success, Albert-Birot leaves his first printer Rirachovsky in November 1916 for a more expensive one: Levé. The first to benefit from it, the number 12 of SIC contains the famous calligram of Apollinaire “It rains”, typographic masterpiece accomplished by Levé in one night.
In spite of his success, Pierre Albert-Birot is nevertheless subject to the mockery of those who will become the surrealists. Théodore Fraenkel, to mock at the same time SIC, Cocteau, and Albert-Birot, sends to the magazine a poem entitled “Restaurants de nuit” and signed Cocteau; in acrostic, one can read “Poor Birot”. Seeing only fire, Albert-Birot publishes the fake in the number 17.
The magazine will end with the year 1919. In May of the same year, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon founded the magazine Littérature, if at that time Albert-Birot only loses the collaboration of Aragon, a year later Littérature becomes more radical by definitively embracing the cause of the Dada movement. Albert-Birot appears less and less in phase with the intransigent dogmatism of Dada and surrealism which are going to take then the front of the avant-gardist scene, he who, on the contrary, always refused to be affiliated with any school or any movement that it is, and whose ambition with SIC was to operate a synthesis of all the modernist arts.
From their first meeting, organized by Severini, in July 1916, while Apollinaire was convalescing in the Italian hospital in Paris, Albert-Birot asked him to write a play that he would stage, with the idea of a non-realist theater as its watchword. Apollinaire proposed to subtitle it “supernaturalist drama”; with Albert-Birot, who wanted to avoid a connection with the naturalist school or the evocation of the supernatural, they agreed on the word “super-realist”. The play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, was created at the Maubel Conservatory on June 24, 1917. The music was by Germaine Albert-Birot, the sets by the cubist painter Serge Férat, the costumes by Irène Lagut. In the idea of abandoning referential realism, masks are used. “One sells to the spectators a program decorated with a drawing of Picasso and a wood of Matisse.
After a prologue where the director of the troupe proclaims “We are trying to infuse a new spirit into the theater”, the play takes us to Zanzibar, a country in need of children, an allegory of France at war. The heroine Thérèse, after a series of feminist proclamations before the time, makes it known that she refuses her duty to procreate, and chooses a man”s name, Tirésias. Her feminine attributes, two balloons, are detached from her bodice and fly away in the air, while her beard grows. She then obliges her husband to cross-dress and leaves it to him to procreate in his turn. The latter gives birth to 40 050 babies in one day. In the second act, Thérèse goes back on her decision and promises to give birth to twice as many children as her husband.The creation of the work is done in uncertain conditions because of the war context. The budget is reduced, the decor in paper. The breasts of Thérèse flying away were to be represented by balloons inflated with helium, the gas being reserved for the army, we are satisfied with balls of pressed fabric. The director also had to suffer a last minute withdrawal of an actor, while in the absence of musicians, the music of Germaine could not be played. In the end, only one pianist, who was also in charge of the sound effects, performed the piece, which was sold out at the time of its performance, with a foretaste of a Dada evening: already, through the passionate reactions, the show was as much on stage as in the audience. “The journalists The play ends in an indescribable tohu-bohu. Another incident, Jacques Vaché, accompanied by Theodore Fraenkel, threatens the room with a revolver. Later, Albert-Birot will say he doubts the veracity of this anecdote.
The piece attracted the wrath of the press, which was unleashed as much against Apollinaire as against Albert-Birot. It also made several cubists, Juan Gris in particular, move away from Apollinaire. The young Aragon, on the other hand, urged by Albert-Birot, wrote a glowing review in SIC.
The same year, Albert-Birot published his first collection, 31 poems of pocket, prefaced by Apollinaire. The latter describes Albert-Birot as “pyrogenic”.
Unfortunately, Apollinaire died the following year, and the experience of Mamelles de Tirésias could not be repeated. On this subject Geneviève Latour makes share of this reflection: “If the Fates had not decided thus, undoubtedly the collaboration of Apollinaire and Albert-Birot would have been for the theater a source of richness and great successes.
In January of the following year, Albert-Birot devoted a triple issue of SIC to the memory of Apollinaire, and thus gathered funeral tributes from Roger Allard, Louis Aragon, André Billy, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Paul Dermée, Max Jacob, Irène Lagut, Pierre Reverdy, Jules Romains, André Salmon, Tristan Tzara, etc. His own oration is entitled Ma main amie.
Theatrical and poetic achievements of 1918-1929
After the war, Pierre Albert-Birot was already producing sculptures, figurative and abstract plastic works, poets and theater artists. It is to these last two activities that he will dedicate himself almost entirely from 1918. In 1922 he bought a printing press to print his own works. The poet who became a typographer brought poetry, like Apollinaire with his calligrams, into the pictorial domain. We owe him the invention of the “poem-panel” and the “poem-landscape”.
From 1918 to 1924 he published at Editions Sic, Matoum and Tevibar, drama for puppets, Larountala, polydrama, Le Bon Dieu, and Les Femmes pliantes, comic dramas. So many anti-realistic pieces, Matoum and Tevibar are poets from the planet Mars, in Les Femmes pliantes the Venusians use the sun as a support for an advertisement for women who can be slipped into a pocket or a drawer when they become cumbersome. At the same time, Albert-Birot met a fairground family, the Walton”s, who created Le Petit Poucet in 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
In 1929, he founded the Théâtre du Plateau. There, with the actor Roger Roussot, he staged his plays Matoum and Tevibar and Bluebeard, a dramatic rewriting of Charles Perrault”s tale. On this occasion, he drew the admiration of Louis Jouvet, Gaston Baty and Charles Dullin who described Les Femmes pliantes as a school play.
It is also the time of a great poetic creativity, where he gives free rein to his mastery and of the metred and rhymed verse, and of the free verse, and of the verse, and of the typographic poem (that he will sometimes name “ideographic”), – or of what he names “poem to shout and to dance” -; he publishes suddenly three collections, which can take back poems already appeared in Sic: The Joy of the seven colors in which he sings the light, “his wife”, The Moon, collection in which we find the poetic art “To the young poets, poem didactic kind” (appeared for the first time in January 1918 in the twenty-fifth number of Sic) and Poems to the other Me, collection that he considers as the most important of his poetic work.
“The time of solitude
Germaine Albert-Birot died in 1931, and the poet of light was forced to wear the clothes of mourning. He wrote and printed, without an author”s name, thirty copies of a collection of funeral poems that he dedicated to himself: Ma morte, poème sentimental. Four “G”, as a coat of arms, decorate each page. According to the testimony of his friend Jean Follain (whom he met in 1933 and who became one of his rare acquaintances along with the painter Serge Férat, the novelist Roch Grey and Roger Roussot) the widowed poet withdrew to a narrow dwelling in the rue du Départ, refused literary fraternities, and printed his books, using his lever machine placed in his room, giving them the only publicity of depositing them at the National Library. After Ma Morte in 1931 and a silence of six years, we can mention Le Cycle des poèmes de l”année, in 1937, the elegiac collection Âmenpeine in 1938, and La Panthère noire, the same year. He spends much of his time listening to the radio on headphones on an old galena machine. In the evening, he dines alone, poorly.
However, it was at the same time, from 1933 on, that Jean Follain led him to gather his old friends every two weeks for dinners called Grabinoulor, named after the epic whose writing would occupy his entire life, and also after the eponymous character, Albert-Birot”s literary double. Grabinoulor is a vast project begun in 1918, the year in which a first excerpt was published in the thirtieth issue of Sic. The Grabinoulor meal, where pages from the epic are read, takes place in a restaurant on rue des Canettes, and the books Albert-Birot prints at that time will bear the mention “Editions des Canettes”.
In 1933, thanks to Jean Paulhan”s recommendation, Robert Denoël agreed to publish a first version of the Grabinoulor, which is now at two books (it will have six, once completed).
Ultimate rebirth and last years, with Arlette Lafont
A new life begins for Pierre Albert-Birot in 1955, when he meets Arlette Lafont, a Sorbonne woman who wanted to collect his testimony on Roch Grey. She became his wife in 1962, and through her efforts, contributed to bring her husband”s work out of oblivion. He dedicated to her in 1956, his collection Le Train bleu written in 1953, with this word:
The “blue train” is in Albert-Birot”s own little mythology an allegory he has already used of death. The collection is composed mainly of poems in verses, meditations on time, old age and death, and yet always carried by the zany humor of its author. Thus, Pascal Pia could say that “Albert-Birot did not put a final point to anything. He was not inclined to break. The trials, so severe as they were, did not bring him down, nor did they make him change his tone. The songs of his twilight have the same familiar turn as the poems of his beginnings. “In 1965, thanks to the efforts of Arlette, Gallimard published an enlarged but incomplete Grabinoulor. A banner does not hesitate to present it as “a classic of surrealism” to the astonishment, and even anger, of Albert-Birot who was never part of the group, nor signed any manifesto and never participated in any of the events. In 1966, he declared that he was not “attracted by the arcana and the fantastic of surrealism, by its Freudian visions”. The play, to which the author put his final point in 1963 – the only point of all the work -, is published in the complete form of the Six books of Grabinoulor only in 1991 by Jean-Michel Place.
Pierre Albert-Birot died on July 27, 1967. On his death announcement, Arlette wrote a verse from the Black Panther:
Notes, prefaces, articles