Rock and Rimbaud: the rebel as poet

Audio 04:01

He may have lived over a hundred years ago, but French poet Arthur Rimbaud stills speaks to young people in the Internet era. A new Paris show, Rimbaudmania, reveals his influence on poets and musicians, from Burroughs and Kerouac to Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and punk rock.


This is the biggest Rimbaud exhibition ever. It offers convincing proof of the bad-boy poet’s universal fandom: in theatre, painting, sculpture, opera, classical music, rock and roll, fashion and advertising.

“The myth of Rimbaud,” explains curator and biographer Claude Jeancolas, “is omnipresent in the arts.”

It is also a catalogue of obsessions, the need for each generation to identify with the poet who dropped out of school to experiment with changing the world.

Rimbaud, c’est moi,” said Henry Miller, who wrote a book about him (The Time of Assassins). Bruce Chatwin wanted to play Rimbaud in an opera.

Serge Gainsbourg said in an interview that he would “meet Rimbaud in Ethiopia” after his death – Rimbaud abandoned poetry at 19 to explore the Horn of Africa and trade in arms.

The visit begins in a dimly lit room with manuscripts and first editions. Rimbaud’s Letter of the seer is on display for the first time, a schoolboy script of swirls and flourishes that says the poet must brave the “systematic derangement of all the senses” to create a new “universal language”. Here too is Le Reliquaire, an edition of Rimbaud’s poems seized by the police within a day of his death.

The poems and letters are just a few of the 350 objects. There are also masterpieces by Picasso, Giacometti and Fernand Léger. The photography includes the series by Robert Mapplethorpe.

And yes, it is manic. The rare manuscripts and artistic masterpieces compete for attention with Patti Smith belting out Rimbaud-inspired lyrics and babyfaced Rimbaud T-shirts, comic strips and mugs.

Loudspeakers in a dozen languages recite Rimbaud’s visionary account of his own life, a Season in Hell, which eerily foretells his early death and posthumous stardom.

The medium is the message with separate rooms for books, music and film. Patti Smith figures prominently, as does the Clash. A novel by punkster Richard Hell, Godlike, sums up how punk musicians feel about him. Hollywood chose Leonardo DiCaprio to portray him as poet-brat in the film Total Eclipse.

By the exit you just might find yourself humming the punk anthem “go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud…”

, the eternity of an icon runs until 1 August at the Galerie des Bibliothèques, 22 rue Mahler, 75004. It will then move to the Rimbaud Museum in Charleville in the north of France.


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