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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau, 1916, Pablo Picasso
When we think of Surrealism, the first image to come to mind is Salvador Dali's limp watches (The Persistence of Memory). Then we may picture the later work of Duchamp, Magritte, and others as an afterthought, and....well...that's about it. That's unfortunate because the visual images of Surrealism were, in fact, the afterthought. Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, for some time before artists latched upon it and gave it vivid imagery. Surrealism was the brainchild of French writer, Andre Breton, who nailed it down with his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. And the link between Surrealism's literary and visual incarnations can best be found in one man--Jean Cocteau.

Though he always disputed any links to the Surrealist, and in fact considered them rivals, only Cocteau's broad creative talents in both literature and the visual arts are sufficient to bridge this gap. Cocteau was a poet, a dramatist, a scenarist, novelist, filmmaker, and illustrator; not necessarily in that order; and not always equally successful in all his talents, but surely one of the most multidimensional creative geniuses of the 20th century. Add to this list the character traits of congeniality, originality, homosexuality, and a deeply introspective personality, and you have one of the most engaging geniuses of the century as well.

Cocteau: a man of many talents
Cocteau was born in 1889 into a wealthy, bourgeois family in Maison-Lafitte near Paris. His father was a stockbroker who longed to be a painter. His mother's father owned the brokerage house where his father worked and several of the houses where the family lived. She was an art collector who owned several Stradivarius violins used to entertain the family in the hands of visiting musical virtuosos. It must have been an interesting home life. The boy was educated at the Lycee Condorcet where he insisted later he was the prize "boob" in the class (his school records say otherwise). He was, undeniably something of a class clown though; and was expelled for his antics before graduating. It was at Condorcet however, at the age of fifteen, that Cocteau encountered his first homosexual infatuation with a boy named Pierre Dargelos, a haunting figure that would later appear in various literary incarnations throughout his life. More desperately though, the ideal love of his life seems to have been a mirror image of himself.

la Lampe d'Aladin, 1909,
Cocteau was a teen prodigy.

Cocteau made his first literary splash just a year later as the teenage protege of the middle-aged homosexual actor, Edouard de Max, reading his poems aloud in the Theatre Femina; and later with the publication of his first book of poetry, La lampe d'Aladin, in 1909. At the same time he was doing ballet scenarios for the famous Ballet Russes and hobnobbing with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, the writer, Guillaume Apollinaire, and anyone else he deemed likely to advance his name and career. His fragile health kept him out of World War I though he served for a time as a civilian ambulance attendant.

Jean Cocteau working on a mural in London, 1959
Following the war, Cocteau's reputation as a writer and man of many talents soared. He wrote and illustrated books, wrote and produced plays, flirted with the Surrealists, adapted Greek dramas to modern interpretations, painted, drew, designed tapestries, type fonts, became a literary critic, and promoted American Jazz and Charlie Chaplin. During this time also he lost a friend and lover, the writer Ramond Radiquest, to death at the age of 23, took up opium, then religion, while at the same time writing his first novel, The Blood of a Poet. The 1930s saw his prodigious output cement his place as a French literary icon. During the Second World War he was suspected of collaborating with the Nazis though in retrospect, the lifetime bon-vivant was probably merely being friendly with those who were.

His play, Orphee, turned out to be
Cocteau's most important work,
spawning both a novel and a film.
After the war, he turned his creative talents entirely to film, creating a deeply introspective trilogy, Le Sang d'un poete (a film version of his novel), Orphee (based on his 1925 play), and nine years later, Le Testament d'Orphee which he intended as his own last testament, laden with his theories and beliefs, and crowded with his lovers and friends, including Picasso, Yul Brynner, the bullfighter, Dominguin, and Brigitte Bardot. In 1955, Cocteau, the self-styled enfant terrible of the arts was named one of the "Immortals" of the Académie Française. Immortal or not, he died in 1963; accused by critics of vacuity and hailed by his admirers for profundity.

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