French Poet, Novelist, Painter, Graphic Artist, Playwright and Filmmaker
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.
- 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.
Biography of Jean Cocteau
Cocteau was a celebrity in his time and his disastrous romantic liaisons were widely discussed (one spurned lover shot himself, one died under the Gestapo, another became a monk). His reputation at times preceded him, even causing him to lament "my name has overtaken my work."
Important Art by Jean Cocteau
This image shows two of the costumes from Parade in front of the set background, both costumes designed by Pablo Picasso under Jean Cocteau's direction. The ballet followed three groups of circus performers attempting to lure an audience to a performance. These costumes, made from cardboard, were abstract and brightly colored; the figure on the left is a French businessman, identified through his pipe, while the figure on the right is an American businessman, with a red shirt, top hat and megaphone, with yellow and orange grids representing skyscrapers. The set resembles a child's drawing, with simple shapes suggesting fairground architecture. The score included sound effects, such as typewriters and sirens, interspersed with orchestral music.
Cocteau conceived of the ballet, which he pushed for the Ballets Russes to perform, as a work in which everyday life would, for the first time, be danced; he saw performance as offering an opportunity to bring literature, music, dance, sculpture and painting together into an all-encompassing artwork, creating an immersive world. Cocteau conceived of the scenario and wrote the libretto, selected Erik Satie as composer and worked with him - and sometimes against him - on the inclusion of sound within the music and enlisted Pablo Picasso to work on sets and costumes. Parade can be seen as a response to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's call for the circus to invade the theatre, combining the popular entertainment of the dance hall with the classical language of ballet.
This drawing shows two torsos joined at the belly button, with facial profiles detached and turned, such that they do not flow from the bodies, but are linked by a line extending between the eye of the face in the lower left corner and that in the upper right. The image is from the 1930 edition of The White Book, a combination of autobiography and fiction exploring homosexuality which featured seventeen drawings accompanying the text. The text traces the erotic awakening of a young boy, while the images center upon anonymous male bodies. The narrator cannot be clearly linked to any of the figures, who are notably fragmentary, often rendered without hands or feet and with grey patches obscuring their genitalia, alongside a text in which Cocteau does not refer to the penis by name, instead using euphemisms ranging from "an enigma" to "that little underwater plant."
The book's central image shows the outline of two men, in similar postures, pressing their bodies on alternate sides of a mirror. The illustrations before and after this center similarly correspond, such that the book itself foregrounds doubling; the above illustration, also, with its doubled torso and multiple faces, suggests sexual eroticism springs, in part, from the allure of the mirror. The images are colored with soft pink, pale blue, dark grey and beige, though the colors do not correspond with reality, with some bodies left uncolored while others are blue or pink.
The White Book borrows, for its title, a phrase used to designate a set of official documents addressing a problem, as homosexuality was undeniably seen at this time; the word 'white,' however, has connotations of innocence, suggesting that the book operates essentially as a defense, as is supported by Cocteau's argument, in the text, that his "misfortunes stem from a society that condemns the rare as a crime and forces us to reform our inclinations." Cocteau's simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the text's authorship is in keeping with the tone adopted by the book, which celebrates homosexuality whilst accepting the inability to speak of it openly, as hinted at by the anonymity of most partners mentioned in the text and by a drawing of two men blindfolded. The centrality of the mirror image links The White Book with Cocteau's broader oeuvre, in which he frequently deployed mirrors to signify passage into the unknown. The colors used for the illustrations, in 1930, are clearly influenced by Cocteau's friend Marie Laurencin, known for working in a similar palette, while the fluid lines and abstraction of the figures show Picasso's influence. Cocteau revised the illustrations as his sexuality shifted; while the bodies drawn in 1930 are fragile and graceful, those accompanying the 1947 edition celebrate strength and virility, with far more explicit depictions of sexual acts.
Les Enfants Terribles, published in 1929, centers upon siblings, Paul and Elizabeth, who isolate themselves as teenagers, playing a 'game' with one another that governs, disrupts and ultimately ends their lives. The central characters are based on Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint, twins with whom Cocteau was close, while the setting borrows from Cocteau's own living space, a room filled with photographs. It is easy, also, to read Cocteau's own way of being into that of the siblings, who are more imbedded in dream than reality, with confusion over the boundaries of the imagination and difficulty making sense of adulthood. Les Enfants Terribles introduces two other figures, Dargelos and Agathe, to this relationship, aggravating it with sexual competition. This image, a line drawing that shows two figures composed of one green line, meeting at lips, forehead and chest, was made for the cover of the 1963 reprinting.
Cocteau wrote Les Enfants Terribles in only seventeen days and expected that only a few people would read the book; instead, it was a popular and critical triumph. Cocteau's success was quickly complicated, however, by the death of Jeanne Bourgoint later in 1929, for which many blamed Cocteau, feeling that the suicide was designed after that of the book, despite reports that the siblings had not recognized themselves. Nonetheless, Cocteau did not distance himself from Les Enfants Terribles, as indicated by the cover he drew for the 1963 edition, which emphasizes the closeness of the book's central characters, who lack boundaries such that many critics mistakenly believed the novel to involve sexual, alongside emotional, incest.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jean Cocteau
- Jean Cocteau: A LifeOur PickBy Claude Arnaud
- Cocteau: A BiographyBy Francis Steegmuller
- Jean CocteauBy James S. Williams
- An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean CocteauBy Frederick Brown
- The Difficulty of BeingOur PickBy Jean Cocteau
- Professional Secrets: An Autobiography of Jean CocteauBy Jean Cocteau
- Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries Volume 1By Jean Cocteau
- Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries, Volume 2By Jean Cocteau
- The Art of CinemaBy Jean Cocteau
- Opium: The Diary of His CureBy Jean Cocteau
- The journals of Jean CocteauBy Jean Cocteau
- Jean Cocteau (French Film Directors)By James S. Williams
- Scandal & parade: The Theatre of Jean CocteauBy Neal Oxenhandler
- The Dance Theatre of Jean CocteauBy Frank W. D. Ries
- Erotic Drawings by Jean CocteauBy Annie Guedras
- The Visual Art of Jean CocteauBy William A. Emboden
- Jean CocteauOur PickInterviewed by William Fifield / The Paris Review / Issue 32, Summer-Fall 1964
- An Angel, a Flower, a BirdBy Francis Steegmuller / The New Yorker / September 27, 1969
- ART; Jean Cocteau, Before His Own Fabulousness Consumed HimBy Alan Riding / The New York Times / October 5, 2003
- When Philippe Halsman met Jean CocteauBy Charlotte Jansen / Magnum Photos / October 7, 2018
- Jean Cocteau: opium, eroticism and the dark despair of La voix humaineBy Rupert Christiansen / The Telegraph / June 2, 2016
- Testament of Cocteau, a Cinematic PoetBy Kevin Filipskijune / The New York Times / June18, 2000
- Jean Cocteau: Beauty or beast?By Louise Gray / Independent / November 23, 2003