Arthur Cravan, the Dadaist poet-boxer, was neither a good poet nor a good boxer, but he was a legendary provocateur.
Hemingway, Mailer, and Scorsese: much great American art has been inspired by boxing. George Bellows’s may be the best. Between 1907 and 1909, Bellows created three paintings—Club Night, Stag at Sharkey’s, Both Members of This Club—that captured boxing’s glories and indignities. The sport provided a powerfully visceral metaphor for the American experience of the twentieth century.
But boxing also transfixed artists beyond American shores. Around the time Bellows created his triptych, a tranche of Europeans created sublime, radical work inspired by the sport. One of them was the Swiss enigma Arthur Cravan. Described by one critic as “a world tramp … a traverser of borders and resister of orders,” Cravan traveled the globe in the early 1900s by forging documents and assuming false identities, preening, harassing, and haranguing, as he went. He was hailed by André Breton as a pivotal precursor of Dadaism, and belonged to that category of floating prewar avant-gardists whose legacy resides more in their mode of living than their artistic creations. Indeed, he declared himself anti-art and avowed boxing to be the ultimate creative expression of the modern, American-tinged age. He’s often referred to as a “poet-boxer,” though he wasn’t especially accomplished as either; his real talent appears to have been making a spectacle of himself, in every sense.
Cravan’s real name was Fabian Avenarius Lloyd; he adopted myriad pseudonyms and aliases during his short life. He was born in Switzerland, in 1887, to Irish and British parents with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, though he was immensely proud that his aunt Constance was Oscar Wilde’s wife. In his early teens, Cravan came to regard the familial link to the world’s most disreputable genius as proof that he was destined for a life of fabulous infamy.
That journey began in 1903 when, aged sixteen, he was kicked out of his boarding school for an egregious act of indiscipline—according to some, he hit a teacher—and, inspired by his hero Arthur Rimbaud, he left Switzerland in search of adventure. Over the next several years, Cravan took up with hookers in Berlin, hoboed his way from New York to California, and worked in the engine room of a steamship bound for the South Pacific, jumping ship when it docked in Australia. But it was in Paris that the legend of the man we know as Arthur Cravan—writer, brawler, and hoaxer—was cemented. Within the space of six years, he scandalized polite society, infuriated the avant-garde, slugged it out with one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, and then disappeared without a trace.
In the years immediately before World War I, Paris was in thrall to speed, danger, and incivility. The experiments of Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp revolutionized painting; Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps twisted music and dance into disorientating new forms; aviation pioneers guided flying machines around the contours of the Eiffel Tower.
Amid the craze for brutal novelty, boxing became a sensation. Though originally based on Victorian aristocratic ideals, it was championed by the modernists of Montmartre as an embodiment of the new century. It was also regarded as a fundamentally American pastime, a visceral, primal, and demotic endeavor redolent of the popular culture that was beginning to excite the world beyond the United States. When Jack Johnson fled racially motivated prosecution in the U.S. in 1913, he arrived in Paris to a hero’s welcome. After he’d beaten Jim Jeffries to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1910, he’d been tarred as a threat to social order back home. A film of the fight had been a hit in France but was banned in America for fear that images of a black man schooling a white man in the ring would cause grave insult and incite sedition. In Paris, African American athletes and entertainers were in vogue, and Johnson gained celebrity status, mixing in nightclubs of Montparnasse and performing sell-out shows that combined pugilism displays with dancing and singing.
By the time Johnson arrived in Paris, Cravan had carved out a reputation as a boxer himself, a discipline he first picked up while traveling across the USA. He was also known as an ardent proponent of the “American” attitude toward life, by which he meant living according to desire and instinct, and telling so-called civilized society to take a running jump. In an essay titled “To Be or Not To Be … American,” he wrote that, thanks to the influence of cakewalk dancers, track athletes, and boxers such as Joe Jeanette, the whole of Paris had turned American. “Overnight,” Cravan said, “everyone began to spit and swear” and “floated around in clothes two sizes too big for them.” He finished the piece with a crib sheet for how to pass as American: “Chew … never speak … always look busy … and, above all else, crown yourself with arrogance.” It was advice he followed assiduously.
His spindly legs excepted, Cravan looked every inch the serious athlete: six foot four, a lean two hundred and thirty pounds, muscular and broad shouldered. It’s difficult at this remove to judge his mastery of the sport, but he unquestionably excelled in other parts of the boxer’s skill set: the swagger, the hype, and the trash talk. On entering the ring, Cravan acted as his own hype man, bragging about his brilliance and achievements, announcing himself as, among other things, “a hotel thief, snake charmer,” and nephew of Oscar Wilde. He did not mention, but was surely aware of, the irony that the man behind Wilde’s scandalous downfall was the Marquees of Queensbury, the same man after whom the rules of boxing are named.
Cravan found a place for boxing and braggadocio outside the ring too. Perhaps inspired by Jack Johnson’s performances, he held events that combined dancing, boxing, and lectures on modern art. But whereas Johnson had inserted boxing into a stage show, Cravan essentially did the opposite, turning his fights into something between a pantomime and a bracing piece of performance art, intended to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. He advertised one performance promising it would climax with his suicide, only to profanely rebuke those who packed the venue for being so depraved that they would pay to watch a man take his own life. A newspaper report of another show says he “fired several shots into the air, then, half in jest, half seriously, made the most insane pronouncements against art and life. He praised athletes above artists, he praised homosexuals, those who rob the Louvre … Things almost went too far, however, when Cravan threw his briefcase into the audience. It was only by accident that no one was hit.”
Among fashionable Parisians, Cravan was a celebrity, renowned for his vitality and exhibitionism. The poet Blaise Cendrars recalled dancing the tango in nightclubs with Cravan, “Arthur in black shirts with the dickey slit right open to reveal his bleeding tattoos and the obscene inscriptions on his skin.” Cravan valued being seen above just about everything, and claimed that his motivation for writing was to “infuriate my colleagues, to get myself talked about and to make a name for myself.” Between 1911 and 1915, Cravan published five copies of Maintenant, an anti-art magazine of polemical essays, poems, and short stories, all of which he wrote himself under various pseudonyms. Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia cited it as a forerunner of 391, the hugely influential Dadaist publication. One memorable piece was “Oscar Wilde is Alive!,” a story in which Cravan claimed Wilde paid him a visit on the night of March 23, 1913. Though obviously a work of fiction, it appears to have duped the editors of the New York Times, who reported the story as though it were true and even conducted an interview with Cravan during which he kept a straight face while insisting that the occupant of the Wilde plot in Père Lachaise cemetery was an imposter.
Reports of resurrected uncles aside, Maintenant caused a stir because of its stinging attacks on fashionable artists. Its review of the 1914 exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists was especially lacerating. Every artist on show was brought down: “What a kick in the ass I’d like to give them! Oh jumping Jesus Christ almighty! … Deltombe, what a prick! … Hassenberg, how filthy … Hayden, a bit of good advice: take a few pills and purge your spirit; do a lot of fucking or better still go into rigorous training.” It’s difficult to believe that Cravan meant most of it; by his own admission he was unfamiliar with much of the work he lambasted. His aim wasn’t criticism but abuse, inflicting the swollen eyes and busted noses of the boxing ring onto the patrons of the salon and the gallery, giving serious, high-minded art a proper pasting. Art was “more in the guts than in the brain,” he said; “painting is walking, running, eating, drinking and shitting.” As he had likely anticipated, several of those he’d insulted ganged up and confronted him on the street. According to Buffet-Picabia, it “ended at the police station, not to Cravan’s advantage.”
With his taste for confrontation, one might have thought Cravan to be one of those avant-gardists like Marinetti, who greeted the Great War as a chance to finish off the moribund old world and bring forth the new. But, as Roger Lloyd Conover has said, one of the many contradictions that defined Cravan was that he was a “fighter who refused to bear arms.” In the summer of 1914, Cravan began another phase of wandering. In 1916, he found himself in Barcelona where he somehow managed to book himself a high-profile fight against Jack Johnson. Johnson was in the midst of a celebrated stay in Spain, during which he was received by royalty and starred in movies. Photographs from the fight give some idea of the scale of the event, which was held at Barcelona’s huge bullfighting arena La Monumental. What the photos don’t convey is what a mismatch the fight was. Even a ring-rusty, thirty-eight-year-old Johnson was leagues ahead of Cravan. Johnson won with a sixth-round knockout, though it could’ve been over much sooner had he wished it. There are reports that Cravan shook with fear before the contest began, knowing how out of his depth he was. One writer has suggested that “Johnson and Cravan were more collaborators than competitors,” and that the event was a con, just a hype-fueled payday for an aging legend and a flamboyant interloper with no credible chance of a win—the Mayweather-McGregor of its day.
The money Cravan earned from the Johnson fight helped him buy his passage out of Europe, and what he thought was safety from the war. In January 1917, he sailed for New York. Dozens of other European artists and intellectuals were making the same journey at the time; one of Cravan’s shipmates was Leon Trotsky, who noted in his diary that he’d met a man who claimed to be related to Oscar Wilde and “who frankly declared that he would rather smash a Yankee’s face in the noble art of boxing than be done in by a German.” Cravan didn’t stay in New York long; just long enough to put several noses out of joint. He split his time between sleeping rough in Central Park and hobnobbing with Greenwich Village bohemians. Among them was the poet Mina Loy, with whom Cravan began an intense love affair.
The occasion of their meeting was the Society of Independent Artists exhibition at the Grand Central Gallery, in April 1917. New York’s first encounter with modern art had come four years earlier with the seminal Armory Show, at which Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase caused an almighty rumpus. This time, Duchamp presented Fountain, the urinal that changed art history. Having witnessed Cravan’s work back in Paris, Duchamp and Picabia invited Cravan to deliver one of his anti-art lectures at the exhibition. He didn’t disappoint. On the day, he stood half cut in front of his audience, swore at them, waved his cock around, and was promptly arrested.
Once you’ve pulled a stunt like that, it’s difficult to know where to go next. As the Indépendents’ exhibition came to a close, Cravan may have felt that his work in New York was essentially done. Even if that wasn’t the case, he felt he couldn’t stay much longer; the USA had officially entered the war four days before the exhibition opened, and Cravan—who had a tangle of iffy passports and travel documents—feared that some army or other was poised to conscript him. After a grim few months of trekking through inclement weather into Canada, he turned south and arrived in Mexico in December 1917, intending to settle there with Loy. It was another border crossed, and the beginning of another new chapter.
Loy referred to Cravan as “Colossus.” It was a reference to the size of his ego as much as his physicality. In her autobiography, she recalled that friends thought her mad to get mixed up with such a conceited, obnoxious prig. But she was convinced that her love changed him, especially after they moved to Mexico. “In public he was civilized,” Loy said, “in private, sublime.” They married on January 25, 1918. Cravan found work in a local boxing gym, got in shape, fought for the odd purse, and stayed out of trouble.
Though Cravan’s days of exposing himself in public and insulting strangers were behind him, he couldn’t shake his addiction to travel and adventure. In the autumn of 1918, he and Loy, who was now pregnant, decided to make their way to Buenos Aires. The city was on the rise, and it had much to offer a cultivated couple in search of a steady income. While Loy traveled ahead on a hospital ship, Cravan decided he would make the journey via a dilapidated old boat. He set sail from the port town of Salina Cruz in November, and was never seen or heard from again. Loy searched frantically for years but never found any trace of him. Decades later, she was asked by a magazine her happiest memory: “every moment spent with Arthur Cravan,” she answered; the saddest was “the rest of the time.” Predictably, there have been stories that Cravan lived on, including as a mysterious man named Fabian Hope who turned up in Paris after the war, hawking what he claimed were unpublished Oscar Wilde manuscripts. But, as Charles Nicholl concluded at the start of this century when he retraced Cravan’s final steps, it’s far likelier that Cravan suffered the more mundane and awful fate of drowning in the Pacific Ocean.
In the intervening century, tales of his reappearance have transformed Cravan into an elusive prophet of modernism. His life and death prefigured a new type of artistic figure, that of the beautiful, brilliant young artist whose work revolves around the plasticity of their identity; there is more than a little of Arthur Cravan in Warhol, Bowie, and Andy Kaufman. One might say there has been something of Cravan in every subsequent boxer, too. As early as 1929, John R. Tunis wrote that a “modern pugilist is last of all a fighter,” needing instead great proficiency in “the art of obtaining publicity.” Cravan knew that better than any competitor of his generation. His identity as a poet-boxer also seems prescient, though he’s been well outstripped, of course, by Muhammad Ali, the motormouthed master of self-invention and reinvention. Really, though, Cravan remains a curious and obscure one-off whose greatest contribution was to the spirit of Dada. He blurred the distinctions between a fist in the face, a brush on the canvass, and a snigger behind one’s hand.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.