Poulenc had an impeccable eye for art and could write about pictures with great perspicacity. Extracts from a journal that he kept on a visit to America describe graphically (in every sense) his museum visits and his enchanted reactions to paintings by Zurbarán, Ingres, David, Daubigny, Chardin. But it was of course the paintings of his contemporaries that interested him most—and particularly the painters that were dear to his two great poets Éluard and Apollinaire. ‘I thought it would stimulate my work to paint musically’, wrote Poulenc in JdmM. When the composer told Éluard about his plan to write a cycle about painters, the poet ‘half-promised’ to write a poem about Henri Matisse, the painter from whom Poulenc had apparently learned a great deal about economy of style, the paring down to essentials of his piano-writing texture. (Apollinaire writes movingly about Matisse in Il y a
.) Éluard was so close to Picasso (someone remarked that the love between them was the love of equals) that he was only lukewarm in his appreciation of Matisse. In any case, why should Éluard publish a poem in praise of a painter who had been so closely associated with the dreaded Louis Aragon and whose genius, moreover, rivalled that of the easily offended Catalonian colossus? The cycle was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances in both Paris (1957, with the composer) and New York (1958); needless to say, there was no Matisse to end the cycle in the ‘joy and sunlight’ Poulenc had envisaged. The texts are taken from Voir
(1948), an anthology of Éluard poems, mostly old, some new, about the artists the poet had most admired, who had been an integral part of his life and work. The large-format publication permits illustrations, some in colour, taken in part from the poet’s own dazzling collection. Works by all the painters in Poulenc’s cycle were owned by Éluard at different times in his life, paintings and drawings by Picasso (including numerous depictions of Nusch) outnumbering the others.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013