The Dangers of Irony in Literalist Times: Thinking of Guillaume Apollinaire

It was on this day in 1911 that Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested under suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa.

Apollinaire was a renowned critic, poet, pornographer and the man who coined the term “surrealism” as well as “cubism.” He would come to be considered one of the signal Western literary figures of the early twentieth century.

One could see why he would fall under suspicion. He had, after all, once called for the Louvre to be burned to the ground. And, well, irony doesn’t play well with law enforcement.

Okay, it probably didn’t help that it turned out he had given shelter to Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who in fact did steal the painting, and who when he departed from Apollinaire’s apartment left behind some Egyptian statuettes that were also part of the theft.

Knowing things were looking bad, the poet suggested maybe the person they were actually looking for was Pablo Picasso. Apparently there is little honor among the poets. And maybe, who knows, as Apollinaire was a Roman, and his friend Picasso used suggest the poet was the illegitimate son of the current pope, possibly Apollinaire hadn’t thought that was as funny as the artist did. Perhaps Apollinaire recalled that as he was looking for someone to give up to the authorities.

And so Picasso was also dragged in for questioning.

Picasso was quickly released.

And, after a week, so was Apollinaire.

For me here, a small moment to recall the rogue who was also one of our literary greats…


The painting of Apollinaire is by Jean Metzinger.

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