in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

The lyrical heavyweight

Arthur Cravan

in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

I know very little about 'the poet with the shortest hair in the world'. To be honest, few people are able to bridge the chasms between the scarceoutcrops of fact surrounding his life, and fewer still are quite sure how solid those footholds really are.

He's a slippery cult hero cliché who rivals Elvis in posthumous sightings. We know that Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, Oscar Wilde's nephew, was born to English parents sometime around 1887. We also know that 'Eduoard Archinard' was born the same year, as were 'Isaac Cravan', 'Dorian Hope', 'Sebastian Hope', 'B. Holland', 'Robert Miradique', 'Marie Lowitska', 'W. Cooper' and 'James M. Hayes'. Some time around the start of the First World War all of the above went under the name 'Arthur Cravan'.

To some he was a poet. Others knew him as a forger. To the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson he was a friend in pugilism. Thief, chauffeur, master of disguise, draft dodger, fruit picker, butcher, sailor, professor and lumberjack were his other known trades. His first language was French and his last known driving licence was issued in Berlin. As a teenager Lloyd had bummed his way across the States, and, at some point later, studied in Europe. By the outbreak of the First World War, he was living in France as 'Arthur Cravan', under a Swiss passport. Caring little for nationalist squabbles, or any kind of nationhood for that matter, he disguised himself as a soldier and jumped the border into Spain, before resurfacing in Barcelona sometime during 1916. Broke and in need of some hard cash to get to New York, he staged a boxing match with his hero, Jack Johnson. Cravan turned up blind drunk, Johnson swiftly KO'd him, and the poet-boxer used his cut of the takings to hustle a transatlantic fare.

He certainly liked a fight. As founder editor of and sole scribe for the literary magazine Maintenant, Cravan was an aggressively scathing and unforgivingly vicious thorn in the backsides of Paris and New York's Modernist scenesters. Beatified by Dadaist ideologues and Surrealist pontiffs alike, he was always for himself and never for the greater good of the latest cause. Once, having spread the word that he planned to publicly commit suicide in a Parisian theatre, he berated the packed audience for turning suicide into spectacle - while sporting only a jockstrap 'for the benefit of the ladies'. 1 In 1917 Duchamp and Picabia invited him to lecture on Modern art and the Independents Exhibition at New York's Grand Central Gallery. Arriving tanked up to the eyeballs on absinthe, Cravan shoved his way through the smart New York hostesses, staggered up to the lectern and stripped off while firing what Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia coyly reported as 'one of the most insulting epithets in the English language' 2 at his audience before being arrested.

Not one to mince his words (and weighing in as a 230 lb, 6 feet 1 inch brick wall with 19 inch biceps, why the hell should he have had to?), Cravan's critical output was rather prissily described by André Breton as 'unprecedentedly direct'. 3 Of the painter Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire's mistress, Cravan observed: 'Now there's someone who needs somebody to lift her skirts and stick a fat [...] somewhere to teach her that art isn't just little poses in front of a mirror [but rather] walking, running, drinking, eating, sleeping and relieving oneself.' 4 Apollinaire then challenged him to a duel, which resulted in a rather ignominious apology from Cravan but did nothing to dry up his wellspring of vitriol. He described Robert Delaunay as having 'the face of a flaming pig', 5 and as for André Gide, toast of the Parisian literati, Cravan 'took an overwhelming aversion' to him: 'I will pay Gide this one compliment, moreover unpleasant, that his little plurality derives from the fact that he could very easily be mistaken for a show-off.' The pages of Maintenant also saw the literary hoax 'Oscar Wilde est vivant!' (Oscar Wilde is alive), 13 years after the playwright's deathin 1900. Cravan's account of a surprise meeting and night on the tiles with his uncle was convincing enough for the New York Times to dispatch investigative reporters.

When America began conscription towards the end of the war, Cravan hotfooted it to Canada, using (according to Buffet-Picabia) the papers of an alcoholic friend who had been killed off by orgiastic excess. A postcard to her suggests Cravan made it at least as far as Newfoundland. The last anyone saw of him was in Salina Cruz, Mexico, in 1918. With his wife, the Modernist poet (and another story) Mina Loy, Cravan planned to head down to Buenos Aires with their new-born daughter. Loy and the baby travelled ahead while Cravan prepared a small yacht with which to make the journey. Both he and the boat vanished without a trace. His body was never recovered.

Some years later, around 1921, forged Wildeana began to circulate in Paris, London and Dublin. Letters offering these manuscripts to various dealers came from Paris, sometimes signed 'Monsieur André Gide', sometimes 'Dorian Hope', occasionally 'Sebastian Hope', and later 'B. Holland'. Gide, along with a number of Wilde experts, one of whom had met 'Dorian Hope', suspected Cravan. Vyvyan Holland, Wilde's son, pointed out that his first cousin Fabian Lloyd called himself 'Dorian Hope': 'the "Dorian" came from Dorian Gray and the "Hope" from Adrian Hope, who was one of the family trustees.' 7 In 1956 a retired priest claimed to have run into an acquaintance he had made in New York in 1919 who had called himself 'James M. Hayes', but had carried a card inscribed 'Dorian Hope'. Letters received from this character were variously signed 'Dorian Hope', 'Eva, Dowager Empress of Iceland' and even 'Queen Mary'. As Cravan's biographer (and master sleuth, given the dearth of information) Roger Conover deduces: '... if the suspicions [...] are true, then Cravan was still in circulation well into the 1920s.' Friends of Cravan's claimed to have been followed in the years after his vanishing act. Even wilder claims circulated of death threats received by people researching Cravan's life, or projects brought to an abrupt halt by sudden and inexplicable

For those who still believe in the evolution of art as a series of fractures from its own history, Cravan's strange disappearance provides a kind of Modernist King Arthur fable - a sleeping saviour and guiding spirit who'll return to save the kingdom at its hour of need. Like Bas Jan Ader, that other Romantic who went missing on a solo seafaring mission, Cravan left no corpse and no substantial body of evidence - a little poetry, a journal satirizing bohemian mores - but instead vaporized into the archetype of a hundred avant-garde firebrands. Part Hemingway, part Lenny Bruce, this consummate cult hero waits to be canonized within an inch of his own myth, like every other 20th-century macho radical, but the vacuum of information surrounding his life means that he remains a frustrating enigma. Which is just how Arthur Cravan, Fabian Avenarius Lloyd and the Dowager Empress of Iceland would have wanted it.

'he puts the world to the test of intuition'

Mina Loy, 'Perlun', 1921 8

1. Roger Conover, 'Arthur Cravan', from Four Dada Suicides, Atlas Press, London, 1995, p. 23.

2. Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, 'Arthur Cravan and American Dada', from Four Dada Suicides, op. cit., p. 86.

3. Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, Bloomsbury, London, 1995, p. 36.

4. Ibid., p. 36.

5. Ibid., p. 36.

6. Roger Conover, 'Arthur Cravan', op. cit., p. 20.

7. Ibid., p. 21.

8. Mina Loy, 'Perlun', from The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc., New York, 1996, p. 75.