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Jean Cocteau

French Poet, Novelist, Painter, Graphic Artist, Playwright and Filmmaker

Jean Cocteau Photo

Born: July 5, 1889 - Maisons-Laffitte, France

Died: October 11, 1963 - Milly-la-Forêt, France

"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth."

Summary of Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau worked across almost every artistic discipline, exploring writing, painting and drawing, theatre and film, linking disparate forms of art making in explorations of myth, contemporary life, dream and sexual identity. Cocteau began as a poet but aspired toward the creation of worlds into which an audience could be immersed. He drew from many influences, filtering the world around him through his personal sensibility and life experiences. Cocteau, though controversial among his peers due to his eagerness to please, valued collaboration and his receptivity to the ideas of others is evident throughout his body of work, which broke new ground in creating links between different styles, media and periods.

Key Ideas

Cocteau aspired to create "total works of art," extending Richard Wagner's concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, then more familiar in theory than in practice, combining words, images and movements in multiple dimensions. This led him to direct ballet and film, illustrate his own books and decorate interiors, all of which provided the possibility of immersing the audience in his creations. This attitude to art making, which involved many collaborators, set the tone for the avant-garde later in the century.
Jean Cocteau's work is often personal, mapping his own perspective onto the universal through reimagining myth in contemporary life, resulting in novel perspectives on familiar situations. Cocteau avoided the overtly political, favoring the escape from life offered through explorations of dream and the unconscious.
Cocteau's work is divisive due to his difficulty fitting into established categories. He was unpopular, in his lifetime, due both to homophobia and to his obvious desperation for attention, but his habit of working across many media meant critics discredited him as failing to master any single discipline while fans praised his ability to work beyond arbitrary limitations.
Cocteau was deeply depressed for much of his adult life and used art making, along with opium, as a means of coping with this. His work is indicative of his struggles, regularly exploring the possibility that creativity itself is inseparable from despair.
Jean Cocteau's work is regularly described as 'surreal,' though he was never affiliated with the Surrealist group. Cocteau, like the Surrealists, was interested in exploring dreams and the unconscious and his mythologization of everyday life is similar to that of key figures such as Louis Aragon and Luis Buñuel, with whom he was on friendly terms. André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist group, however, viewed Cocteau's Romantic aesthetic as conservative and as anathema to the Surrealist creed of pure automatism and this, exacerbated by personal disagreements and Breton's homophobia, meant that Cocteau and the Surrealist group denied all links, despite their artistic similarities.
Jean Cocteau Photo

Jean Cocteau was born to Georges Cocteau and Eugénie Lecomte on July 5, 1889, in Maisons-Laffitte, a small town near Paris. He had a very solitary childhood, as his two siblings, Marthe and Paul, were both much older. Cocteau was nonetheless a happy child, spending summer in Maisons-Lafitte and winter in Paris, reading and playing, fascinated with fairytales and dressing in costume. The family were wealthy and Georges Cocteau, a lawyer, was able to quit his job early in Cocteau's childhood, spending his time painting and playing billiards while Eugénie Lecomte went to the theatre and posed for artists including Nadar (and his brother) and Jacques-Émile Blanche. Georges Cocteau introduced his son to drawing and the child earnt pocket money by selling his drawings to his grandfather. Jean Cocteau was ten when his father committed suicide, which created a harsh division between childhood and adult existence with which he would struggle throughout his life.

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