Jean Cassou (1897-1986) is insufficiently recognised, both in France and abroad, as a poet and also as a major cultural figure of his time. The creator of France's National Museum of Modern Art, he was for decades at the centre of cultural life in France and beyond. Art critic, poet, novelist, essayist, public figure, intellectual, man of action; imprisoned as a suspected Resistant, his skull broken during the liberation of Toulouse, 1944; he directed the Museum from 1949 to 1965 and was the main builder of its great collection, organising many exhibitions and writing copiously on art with great knowledge and insight. Always an outspoken public figure, he died loaded with honours.
Cassou was born near Bilbao in Spain to a Spanish mother, an Andalucian, and his father's mother was Mexican. As a young man he translated Unamuno and Cervantes, and studied French and Spanish literature at the Sorbonne. After his father's death in 1913 he knew hard times. From the first he wrote about poetry as well as art (Cubism and Poetry, 1920): he was a co-founder of the journal Nouvelles Litteraires. Later he published Three Poets, a study of R.M. Rilke, Oscar Milosz and Antonio Machado.
The shock of the war and Occupation made Jean Cassou himself a major poet. He moved south to the 'free zone' where he joined (and later led) the Resistance in Toulouse, and wrote a poetic sequence, La Rose et le Vin, completing it later with an extensive commentary.
He was arrested in late 1941 and held incommunicado in La Furgole prison, Toulouse. There, without pen and paper, he composed and memorised his famous 33 Sonnets Composés au Secret. This literary classic was soon published by Éditions de Minuit, with a magnificent introduction by Louis Aragon. In this first, clandestine edition, both men used assumed names, Jean Noir and François La Colère: John Black, Francis Anger. In peacetime the sonnets were translated, twice, into German. Much later, they were translated into English sonnets by Timothy Ades, and, along with much of Aragon's introduction and several of Cassou's other poems, were published bilingually by Arc Publications in 2002.