The Prose of the Trans-Siberien and of Little Jeanne of France is an artefact that is neither straightforwardly a book, nor an artwork. Published in Paris in 1913, it takes the form of a package that, once fully extended, is around two metres long and forty centimetres wide. The work’s title belongs to the poem written by Blaise Cendrars. It charts the trip of a 16 year old Cendrars on the train from Moscow to Russia in 1905-6 during the Russian Revolution, with the route map displayed at the poem’s start. Cendrars shared the work with artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk, an émigré to Paris of Russian nationality, who excitedly ‘undertook to illustrate it’. Delaunay-Terk’s fashion background influenced her use of Pouchoir stencilling to create the ‘couleurs simultanées’ that marry with the text.
Taking up the full right-hand half of the work, the poem is an energetic and uneasy description of a journey through vast and precarious landscapes. Like the avant-garde performances of the period that saw different tones and verses simultaneously spoken on stage, La Prose creates a multi-layered personality at the centre of the work. The text appears in different colours, typefaces, sizes, and alignments creating a montage of linguistic turns. Multiple registers and juxtapositions capture the drama and uncertainty of change (unsurprisingly the text was first translated into English in 1931 by John Dos Passos). The poem’s narrator is anxious, edgy, conflicted. He talks to contemporaries, to the reader, and to himself. Different voices enter the consciousness, shifting the tone, and altering the poem’s contextual time and space:
‘Tell me, Blaise, are we far from Montmartre?’
Sentences break through the narrative and pull past anxieties into the present. The urgency and excitement of youth is intertwined with memory and recollection, as if Blaise is remembering, questioning, collapsing the ‘now’ with the ‘then’. The poem combines the Cendrars of 1913’s Paris with the author as the young Swiss protagonist travelling from Russia. A simultaneity represented by Apollinaire’s Paris itself. The global city, encapsulating the eternality of the ancient with the freshness of the modern in its monumental landmarks, the Eiffel Tower and the short-lived Grand Roue. Both feature in Cendrars’ poem as it reaches its climax and catches up with the present:
City of the singular Tower of the great Gallows and the Wheel’
The textual references to the monuments are coupled with Delaunay-Terk’s illustration of the iconic tower and wheel conjoined – the only recognisable symbol in the work. Cendrars and Delaunay-Terk also use this subject matter in accompanying articles in Der Sturm from 1913. Featuring throughout Orphist work of the period these symbols become a short hand for the avant-garde. La Prose presents Paris as the centre of the world, a sharp jolt of modernity where the adolescent arrives at the end of his difficult journey. The Parisian logo is the work’s arrêt complet.
Like Paris, the train at the centre of the poem also symbolises a shift from the past into the present, both through the physical act of travel and technological innovation. The poem evokes the excitement of new global frontiers brought closer to hand by this new transport network. Emboldened place names ‘Basel to Timbuktoo’, ‘Paris to New York’, ‘Madrid to Stockholm’ signal a new cosmopolitanism encapsulated by the authors of the work itself. The construction of the Trans-siberian express had begun in 1891 and represented the modern world of freedom and connectivity, but also of brutal industry and human displacement:
‘The trains roll wildly along a gnarled network’
Cendrars uses the physicality of the train to evoke an anxiety and harshness analogous to the violence surrounding the trip. The dead are never far from the excitement offered in the poem, much like the splashes of darkness that puncture the bright colours of Delaunay-Terk’s canvas. This technology represented the shape of the new age:
‘The iron road is a new geometry’
A geometry that is reflected and captured in the marks that partner the text. Triangles, circles, arcs, and lines are combined in the strip of colour. Axes shift, angles jar, and colours break capturing sensations of the protagonist’s experience beyond realist representation. Delaunay-Terk’s washes of colour with their bleeding, gaps, and smudges suggest a franticness that is mirrored in the text. The curves create a directional pull along a geometric road of their own. The journey’s pace is further accentuated through evocations of sound and rhythm:
‘The trains of Europe beat in quarter time
the trains in Asia beat 5/4 or 7/4. Others play muted lullabies.’
The time signatures emphasise the trains’ tempo but also the shifting paces of life across the world. The narrator describes frantic scenes of passing places and people, of adventure. The poem is dynamically charged. The past is being shaken off by the new:
‘Mad dogs bark at our heels’
Delaunay-Terk’s painting creates a secondary layer of movement and speeds up the linguistic journey. She believed that ‘life is dominated by rhythm’ and in the verticality of La Prose the readers is pulled along an accompanying time signature with beats and rests through the shifts and densities of colour and the sway and stop of shape. The length of the object accentuates the distance travelled, a representation of time spent. The rhythm of La Prose is felt at different intensities in those moments when the painting and text speak to each other and also those when they don’t. Cendrars directs an imaginary painter in the poem, suggesting colours to suit the text:
‘If I were a painter, I’d pour on a lot of red,
a lot of yellow on the end of this trip’
However if such visual reflections are sought they are not to be found in Delaunay-Terk’s imagery. Instead the two halves of La Prose only brush each other, meeting at points of dissonance and harmony between the paint and the sentences:
‘The sky is a torn circus tent in a fishing village’
Tears and rainbows are there in Delaunay-Terk’s work, in the bold colours and in the washes and stripes of paint. But there is a distance between the text and the stencilling that prevents mere illustration. Instead, relationships of light and colour, dark and shade accompany imagery created by the text until it becomes impossible to tell which came into being first. La Prose is a conversation between the sensual and the imaginary, the visual and linguistic. On viewing the poem Apollinaire described La Prose in terms of music, heard and read in unison. The success of La Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France comes from this complete co-dependence, its intertwined mesh of light, sound, movement, and language, and the relational sensations that are created as a result.
La Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France is on display as part of the EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern until the 9th of August 2015
Cendrars, B, 1913, The Prose of the Trans-Siberien and of Little Jeanne of France, trans. by Timothy Young, (Yale: 2009).
Cendrars, B, ‘La Tour’, Der Sturm, Vol. 4, No. 184-185, (November 1913).
Butler, C & A Schwartz (eds), Modern women: Women artists at MOMA, (MOMA NY: 2010).
Hicken, A, Apollinaire, Cubism and Orphism, (Ashgate: 2002).
Shingler, K, ‘Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s La Prose du Transsibérien’, e-France: an on-line Journal of French Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28.