The strange relationship between Erik Satie and the artists of his time
Erik Satie is an artist like no other. He was not only a composer and a pianist but also an illustrator and a poet with a passionate interest in literature and art. All his life, he had a complicated but creative relationship with the artists of his time..
Erik Satie was born in Honfleur on 17 May 1866. A century and a half later, his music and his writing reveal a personality that was unique in the world of music. "Mr Precursor", as his friend Claude Debussy liked to call him. An avant-gardist who inspired his contemporaries in both music and the arts.
He first began mixing with other artists in the late 19th century. At the time, Erik Satie was a regular patron of cabarets such as Le Chat Noir, where he might run into Verlaine, Mallarmé or Maupassant. Or the Librairie de l'Art Indépendent, where he might find Huysmans, Redon or Toulouse-Lautrec.
Erik Satie took little interest in the artistic "think tanks" that formed at that time, but he was often approached by artists and intellectuals to lend his support to the emergence of a new type of music. It was a phenomenon that would pursue him to the end of his life, but he always kept his distance.
Satie and artists: mutual inspiration
Satie's work lay at the heart of the artistic issues of the period and became a source of inspiration for artists. Marcel Proust, as a young, unknown writer, wrote a pastiche of Flaubert entitled Mondanité et mélomanie de Bouvard et Pécuchet. His text cited Erik Satie (who was still relatively unknown also) on the same footing as popular composers like Gounod, Verdi and Wagner.
Satie's works may have inspired others, but the composer also drew inspiration from the resources of other artists. For Sports et divertissements, for example, he joined forces with the illustrator Charles Martin to create a three-dimensional album combining music, texts (which he wrote) and drawings.
Through this open-minded approach to the world of art, Erik Satie brought about some fruitful encounters. During the war, his friend Blaise Cendrars organised a festival, Instant musical Erik Satie, with concerts and an exhibition of paintings by Picasso, Kisling and Modigliani. Jean Cocteau attended the event and heard Trois morceaux en forme de poire played by Satie's favourite performer, Ricardo Viñes.
Cocteau sought out Satie's company and suggested a variety of collaborative projects, including the ballet, Parade. Picasso was involved, too, and designed the sets and costumes. It caused a huge fuss... and prompted the first, though not the last, falling-out between the poet and the composer.
Despite their differences of opinion, Cocteau and Satie's friendship lasted seven years and was the backdrop to a variety of projects, including the birth of the famous group known as The Six: Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. Erik Satie acted as an unwitting mentor for the group. He continued to live his life regardless of the think tanks, until the advent of Dadaism.
Satie and Dadaism: I love you, me neither
After the war, the emergence of the Dada movement brought Satie's works once more into the spotlight. They were seen as anti-music, a sort of anti-conformism, and were all it took to fuel the enthusiasm of young artists like Picabia, Aragon, Tzara or Breton... and turn Satie once more into a reluctant mentor figure.
He found himself presiding over evenings organised to ease the tensions among artists in the Dada movement, but as the evenings generally ended in an all-out brawl, he preferred to avoid them. The composer did, however, play a part in the movement by writing for the journals and working more closely with certain artists, notably those belonging to the group led by Tristan Tzara. This decision drew criticism from Breton and his comrades till the end of his life.
In his biography of Erik Satie, Romaric Gergorin suggests that the composer's lack of interest in this artistic movement might be explained in part as follows:"Dada was the element in which Satie could have flourished, but it came too late. He had already done enough outrageous avant-gardism in his youth." »
Though unmoved by Dadaist concerns, Erik Satie continued to mix with artists and draw inspiration from artistic movements. His composition Socrate, for instance, took its inspiration from cubist works. It was not for nothing that he spent time with Picabia, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Derain, Léger and Duchamp - all brilliant minds with whom he forged more or less close ties.
He continued to create collaborative works, such as La statue retrouvée, in 1923, which was staged by Cocteau with costumes by Picasso. This was one of his last collaborations with the poet before they quarrelled and parted permanently.
Satie then found a new friend in Picabia."An acquaintance, not love at first sight," says the pianist Jean-Pierre Armengaud in his book, Erik Satie. The two artists created a ballet, Relâche, and the Dada movement's one and only cinema masterpiece: Entr’acte by René Clair, set to a scenario by Picabia and music by Satie.
Satie's last friendships with artists were the strongest because, at the end of his life, the composer came under criticism and found himself very isolated and very poor. Braque, Derain, Léger, Picasso and Brancusi continued to provide precious support and kept watch over him until he died on 1 July 1925.