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Paul Éluard - Biography and Legacy

French Poet

Born: December 14, 1895 - Saint Denis, France
Died: November 18, 1952 - Charenton-le-Pont, France
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Paul Éluard

Childhood, Education and Training

Paul Éluard, c.1911

Eugène Émile Paul Grindel - later known as Paul Éluard, having taken the maiden name of his maternal grandmother - was the only child of a Real Estate Agent and bookkeeper, and a seamstress. The family moved from Saint Denis to the 10th Arrondissement in Paris when Émile was 13. He attended a local school where he won a scholarship to attend the École Supérieure de Colbert. Éluard was, by his own admission, an unexceptional student but he did excel at English and spent some time in England as a teenager.

Éluard contracted tuberculosis at the age of 16 and was sent to recover at a sanatorium near Davos, Switzerland. He spent eighteen months at the sanatorium during which time he began reading the works of symbolist and avant-garde poets including Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass he claimed to have read repeatedly. At the sanatorium, he entered into an intense relationship with a young Russian patient, Elena Diakonova. It was she who introduced the Frenchman to the works of the great Russian authors Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Éluard gave Elena the nickname of Gala and described her as "the woman whose gaze pierces walls". Éluard's love for Gala further fuelled his ambitions to become a poet and she assumed the role of his muse. By April 1914, however, Émile and Elena were fit enough to be returned to their respective homes in Paris and Moscow and were temporarily parted.

Éluard joined France's war effort as a medic and infantryman. Following a near fatal gas attack, however, he spent most of 1915 in hospital suffering a range of ailments, including bronchitis, cerebral anaemia, and even a chronic appendicitis. The following year, he worked in an auxiliary capacity at a military evacuation hospital, just 10 kilometres from the war front. His job involved writing letters to the families of the dead and wounded while at night he dug graves.

Éluard's first love, Elena Diakonova, better known as Gala, painted by Salvador Dali in 1944.

Éluard pined for Gala and was determined to marry her. His mother gradually warmed to their relationship although his father was not easily won over. Nevertheless, Gala was able to convince Gala's stepfather to allow her to study French at the Sorbonne (in Paris) and the couple married while Éluard was on leave from the army in February 1917. To both families' dismay, Éluard immediately announced he was going back to the front line two days after the ceremony. A month later he was hospitalised once more, this time with incipient pleurisy. Good news followed, however, when Gala gave birth to their only child, Cécile, in May 1918.

Mature Period

During the War, Éluard published, at his own expense, his first two volumes of poetry, Le Devoir et l'Inquiétude (Duty and Anxiety) in 1917 and Poèmes pour la Paix (Little Poems of Peace) in 1918. Gala helped him to prepare covering letters to literary figures who had taken a fierce stand against the War. Encouraged by Gala, Éluard introduced himself to three writers - André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon - who would help shape his future career. They had launched a new avant-garde journal, Littérature, which was destined to become the main channel for the development of Surrealism in the early 1920s. Breton recalled later how a nervous young man (Éluard) had approached him at the theater, calling him by an unfamiliar name, before explaining that he had mistaken Breton for a friend missing in the war. When Éluard eventually went to visit Breton to share his poetry, Breton realised that Éluard was in fact the nervous young man who had approached him at the theater.

Breton and his friends were impressed with the originality and technique of Éluard's poetry. Éluard was a natural fit for the group; sharing with them a disdain for the prevailing political and social order and its military complexes. They determined to create an art form that could express their feelings about their massacred friends and the oppressed and coerced youth of France. Indeed, youth became a motif in Éluard's poetry which "exploded the myth" of youth equalling innocence and purity. He would use the phrase "enfants sans âge" ("children without age") and described the psychology of youth as "l'état heureux, sans passé, sans souvenir" ("the happy state, without past, without memory").

The men were initially drawn to the Dada movement which had originated in Zurich, Switzerland as a reaction against the War and the heightened mood of nationalism. The "automatic writing" of Dada poetry resulted from allowing the mind to follow illogical and irrational impulses, which, in turn, gave rise to the "absurd" use language. Éluard sent his poems to one of Dada's founding figures, Tristan Tzara, and in January 1920 the pair met in the Parisian apartment of the painter Francis Picabia. The new group set up the first French Dada performance in Paris on March 27, 1920. Appearing alongside Gala, and dressed in drag, Éluard made his stage debut in a play written by Breton and Soupaul. He later returned to the stage as a village idiot wrapped in a paper bag, reciting a nonsensical text by Tzara and, in another performance, Éluard appeared in an engine cylinder.

Paul Eluard's poem collection - <i>Répétitions</i> (1922), illustrated by Max Ernst

The group soon became ambivalent towards Dada which had failed to make much of an impact on a seemingly unshockable post-war Parisian audiences. Breton wanted to endow the movement with a more overt political agenda; Soupault fell in love and married; Aragon returned to his medical studies; and Éluard and Gala left Paris for Monte Carlo where they gambled large amounts of money away. The couple moved onto Tunisia where they bought a chameleon which they brought back with them to their Parisian home. During 1921 the couple expanded their circle of avant-garde friends (which included Man Ray who was newly arrived in Paris) and Éluard produced what is thought to be his earliest Surrealist statement in verse: "Les Nécessités de la vie et les conséquences des rêves" ("Life's necessities and the consequences of dreams"). In November of that year Éluard and Gala visited the German Dadaist Max Ernst in Cologne. Éluard bought two of Ernst's paintings and chose six collages to illustrate his poetry collection, Répétitions (Repetitions).

In 1922 the two men collaborated on Les malheurs des immortels (The misfortunes of the immortals) and the following summer, the Éluards holidayed in the Austrian ski resort of Tyrol with Ernst, his wife and their son. Soon after, Ernst, who had begun an affair with Gala, moved out of his family's apartment. Unable to secure the necessary papers to leave Germany, Ernst entered France illegally and settled into a ménage à trois with Éluard and Gala. When asked about the situation, Éluard declared, "I love Max Ernst more than I love Gala". Ernst made himself at home by decorating the Éluards' home with murals.

After a time, Éluard found his personal situation untenable and sought refuge in bars and night clubs where he drank to excess. In March 1924, Éluard met with Aragon in a local café and shared with him his domestic woes. Éluard left the café on the pretext of buying a box of matches and failed to return. The next day Éluard cabled his father, asking him to tell everyone that he had had a haemorrhage and had been moved to a clinic in Switzerland. The truth of the matter was that Éluard had traveled to Marseilles from where he sailed on a vessel bound for French Polynesia. From there he wrote to Gala, urging her to sell their art collection - which included works by Picabia, Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Juan Gris, André Derain and Marie Laurencin, as well as African masks and other objet d' art - and to join him. Gala was able to reimburse the money they owed Éluard's father and set off with Ernst to meet Éluard, who was by now in the French colony of Saigon, Vietnam. There, the trio decided that Gala would end her relationship with Ernst and she returned to Paris with her husband (Éluard and Ernst remained devoted friends).

By October 1924 two rival Surrealist groups were vying for supremacy. One was more attuned to the irrational elements of Dadaism; the other, larger, group was led by Breton and carried a stronger mission for political and social change and aligned itself with the ideology of communism and anarchism. Éluard, with Aragon, Breton, and other associates, joined the French Communist Party. They explained their beliefs - "working for the liberation of man" - in a joint publication Au grand jour ("In broad daylight"). Éluard was a signatory to Breton's Surrealist Manifesto and also edited the reviews Surrealist Revolution and Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution. In his poetry, meanwhile, Éluard was experimenting with new techniques that explored the relationship between dreams and reality, and the free expression of thought processes. In 1926 he published his celebrated collection Capitale de la douleur (Capital of pain) - a collection that cemented his reputation - followed three years later by L'Amour la Poésie (Love, Poetry). A further collection, La Rose publique (The Public Rose), was published in 1934 and contains what many considered to be the "most Surrealistic" of all Éluard's efforts.

Salvador Dalí was in Paris working with Luis Buñuel on the filming of Un Chien Andalou (1929) when he first met Éluard. The two men became friends but Gala, who would soon leave Éluard for Dali, had initially taken a dislike to the Spaniard on grounds of his eccentric dandyism. Nevertheless, the Éluards, with Buñuel, and René Magritte and his wife, accepted Dali's invitation to join him at his Spanish home in Cadaqués in the summer of 1928. Dali's biographer, Robert Descharnes, wrote: "During the summer, Dalí and Gala took long walks along the cliffs near Cadaqués; Dalí fell madly in love with Gala, who would become his legendary, life-long companion and muse. At the end of her stay, Dalí saw Gala off at the station in Figueras, where she took a train to Paris. Then he retired to his studio and resumed his ascetic life, completing the Portrait of Paul Eluard which the writer had been sitting for".

In 1930, Dalí provided the frontispiece for Éluard and Breton's collection, The Immaculate Conception, a series of poems in prose, in which they communed with the vegetative life of the foetus and simulated demented states, as well as provocatively undermined Christian notions such as the virgin birth. Later in the year (November 1930) Luis Buñuel's scandalous "anti-Catholic/anti-bourgeois" film L'Age d'or (the film had been co-written with Dali who abandoned the project at the writing stage because of Buñuel's anti-Catholic sentiment) was shown publicly (with the sanction of a "censorship visa") at the Studio 28 cinema in Paris. A film about unbridled passion struggling against state and church oppression, it was immediately condemned by the Italian Embassy, who believed Buñuel had caricatured high ranking figures in the Vatican, and the League of Patriots and the Anti-Jewish League, who sprayed the screen with ink, threw smoke bombs and slashing works by Arp, Dali, Ernst, Miro, Man Ray and Tanguy that were on display in the reception area. The film was quickly banned on grounds that it was blasphemous and pornographic. Responding to the ban, Éluard wrote: "the passage from pessimism to the state of action is determined by Love, the principle of evil in bourgeois demonology, which demands that we sacrifice everything (situation, family, honor) to it, but whose failure in social organization introduces the feeling of revolt". (L'Age d'or remined banned in France until 1981 when an original print was fully restored by the Center Pompidou.)

In 1933, Éluard was expelled from the Communist Party partly because of an article by Ferdinand Alquié published in Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution - which he edited - denouncing the Socialist Realism in Soviet films (Stalin having banned the avant-garde Constructivism movement in the mid-to-late 1920s).

Éluard had been introduced to Maria "Nusch" Benz, a destitute music-hall performer, circus acrobat and hypnotist's stooge, in 1929. Light-hearted and graceful, Nusch (11 years Éluard's junior) became his perfect companion, inspiring some of his tenderest romantic poems. Shortly after their marriage in 1934, Éluard published a book entitled Facile (Easy), which brought together Éluard's love poems with eleven photographs by Man Ray of Nusch's body. These photographs gave rise to the term photopoème; a term coined by the French academic, Nicole Boulestreau, as a way of describing a way in which "meaning progresses in accordance with the reciprocity of writing and figures".

Around the same time, Éluard became firm friends with Pablo Picasso: "You hold the flame between your fingers and paint like a fire", Éluard wrote to the Spaniard. The 1936 collection Les yeux fertiles (Fertile eyes) was written by Éluard as a celebration of their friendship. Around this time Éluard introduced his friend to the Surrealist photographer Henriette Theodora Markovitch, better known as Dora Maar. Picasso and Maar became lovers and it is she who is often credited with inspiring his politicized art. Indeed, Éluard, Picasso and Maar were horrified by at the rise of Fascism in Europe, Franco's "seize on Madrid" and the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. Éluard wrote what is thought to be his first overtly political poem, "November 1936", which was published in L'Humanité in December 1936. That poem inspired Picasso to produce the prints of the Dream and Lie of Franco, in January 1937, and in the same year Éluard penned Victory of Guernica, which inspired Picasso to paint his famous masterpiece. In 1938, "November 1936" would be published in the form of a book entitled, Solidarité, in which the text was illustrated by etchings by various artists.

By 1938, Éluard had broken with Breton whose approach to Surrealism had started to repel him. Rather, he developed his own idea of human brotherhood in which women were viewed as spiritual mediators. Le livre ouvert I (The open book 1) of 1940 was one of the first collections in which Éluard effectively denounced what he saw as the self-indulgences of the Surrealists. "What Éluard wrote during the trying years," wrote the Surrealism scholar Anna Balakian, could "fall into two groups: the directly circumstantial verse representing the basic color of events and his subtler interpretations of disaster".

In 1942, with France under Nazi occupation, Éluard re-joined the (now illegal) French Communist Party; "a move which seemed a natural corollary to resistance, and to which he was drawn by his intensely human feeling for the solidarity of mankind", observed French literature scholar Geoffrey Brereton. "What attracted him was the theoretical purity of the doctrine", Brereton continued, he "idealised fraternity [and his] belief in it was a simple extension of his feelings for the human individual". The tyranny of Nazi occupation reinforced Éluard's optimism and determination, and he was an active member of the French Resistance, using the pseudonyms Jean du Hault and Maurice Hervent, to deliver secret papers and assist in the publication of clandestine literature. His "Poésie et Vérité" ("Poetry and Truth") of 1942 was denounced by the Germans and Éluard and Nusch were forced to move to a different residence every month. Fleeing the Gestapo, Éluard took refuge in a mental asylum at Saint-Alban, where many resistance fighters and Jews were in hiding. There he became deeply affected by the misery of its inmates and was inspired to write "Souvenirs de la Maison des Fous" ("Souvenirs from the House of Fools") in 1943.

Éluard's most famous poem Liberté proclaims the "power of a word" by which the poet can begin his life afresh: "I was born to know you / To name you / Liberty". Thousands of copies of Liberté were dropped from British aircraft over France. Éluard also gathered the texts of several poets of the Resistance for an anthology, L'Honneur des poètes (The Honor of Poets). The collection had a powerful effect on French morale too. In June 1944, he created L'Eternelle Revue, for which he proposed to gather around himself the best young writers and after the War, Éluard and Aragon were hailed as the great poets of the Resistance. A five-poem collection, Poésie Ininterrompue (Uninterrupted Poetry), was published in 1946, as was Le Dur Désir de Durer (The Strong Desire to Endure), which was illustrated by Marc Chagall.

Late Period and Death

Éluard's health continued to trouble him, and he often left Nusch in Paris while he recuperated in the mountains or by the sea. But on November 28, 1946, while staying in Switzerland, he learned of Nusch's sudden death from a brain haemorrhage. Her unexpected passing rendered Éluard suicidal. It took him three years to shake off his despair.

After the war Éluard remained active in the international Communist movement. He traveled in Albania, Britain, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and Russia, but not the United States which refused visas to known Communists. His passion for peace, and an idealism that blinded him to the reality of life in the Soviet Union, led him to write in admiration of Stalin. But following Nusch's death he abandoned his political writing, producing Le Temps Déborde (Time is running out) and De l'horizon à l'horizon de tous (From the horizon to everyone's horizon) which traced his grief at the premature death of Nusch and his journey from suicidal despair to hope.

With Picasso, Éluard took part in the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1948. Addressing an audience in Bucharest he said, "I come from a country where no-one laughs any more, where no-one sings. France is in shadow. But you have discovered the sunshine of Happiness". In April 1949, he was a delegate to the Council for World Peace and in June of the same year, he spent a few days with Greek partisans in the Gramos Hills fighting against government soldiers. He proceeded to Budapest where he attended the commemorative celebrations of the centenary of the death of the poet Sándor Petőfi, and meeting the renowned Czech poet Pablo Neruda. By September, Éluard was in Mexico for another peace conference. There he met Dominique Lemort, with whom he returned to France. They married in 1951 and published "Le Phénix" ("The Phoenix"), which celebrated his rediscovered happiness. It was to be, sadly, a rather short lived happiness. Éluard died aged just 56 a year later with Dominique at his bedside.

The Legacy of Paul Éluard

The artists with whom Éluard collaborated reads like a roll-call of twentieth century giants. Ernst, Dalí, Man Ray, Picasso, Chagall, de Chirico, Léger and Miró were all inspired by Éluard's writing and produced many illustrations for books of his poetry. René Magritte felt a deep affinity with Éluard's work. He was first captivated by a single line of poetry written for Gala, "The darkest eyes enclose the lightest". In 1954, the sculptor Ossip Zadkine created a Surrealist sculpture, The Poet or Homage to Paul Éluard for Paris's Luxembourg Gardens, inscribed verses by Éluard.

Éluard's writing also inspired poets around the world throughout the ensuing decades: the Bengali Bishnu Dey, the Iranian Mahmud Kianush, the Greek Odysseus Elytis amongst others. The French composer Francis Poulenc considered turning poems into songs as an act of love and set his finest melodies to texts by Éluard, writing Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard in 1935. Bonjour Tristesse ("Hello Sadness"), Françoise Sagan's 1954 novel, takes its title from Éluard's poem, "À peine défigurée" ("Barely disfigured"), which begins with the lines "Adieu tristesse/Bonjour tristesse..." ("Farewell sadness, Hello sadness"). In film, meanwhile, Éluard's poems are used throughout the great French auteur Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 science fiction/noir Alphaville. Éluard would have seen this as a fitting tribute since in Godard's totalitarian vision of the future, Éluard's poetry is the only portal to love and freedom.

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Paul Éluard Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 04 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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