Jean Cocteau

By Jones, Kristin M. | Artforum International, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Jean Cocteau


Jones, Kristin M., Artforum International


WESSEL + O'CONNOR GALLERY

"The muses must be represented in attitudes of waiting," wrote Jean Cocteau, whose compulsion to continue producing even in the absence of inspiration perhaps helps explain how the artistry of his writing and films coexisted with the repetitive, facile elegance of much of his work on paper. An example of one of his kitschier drawings might be a depiction of a fluidly limned classical head, embellished by stars and flourishes or accompanied by lines of poetry. Such works are utterly lacking in formal rigor, but as with the statue played by Lee Miller in Cocteau's first film, Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of a Poet, 1930), their inert, dreamlike quality masks a potential to spring to life.

Along with a great number of Cocteau's drawings, the recent exhibition presented photographs, film stills, lithographs, ceramics, and illustrated books, offering the chance to see the range of approaches in his two-dimensional work. On view were a number of the lively sketches of Parisian nightlife that Cocteau contributed to French newspapers and avant-garde journals, as well as erotic drawings he began making in the '20s, when he experienced sexual dysfunction thanks to a growing dependence on opium. The influence of Pablo Picasso - who, though he disdained the Frenchman's adulation, was Cocteau's greatest inspiration after Sergei Diaghilev - was glancingly visible, appearing, for example, in the motifs decorating a group of ceramics and in various images of satyrs and fauns. Two constellation-like "dot portraits" were especially reminiscent of the line-and-dot abstractions Picasso made in the mid-'20s to illustrate Balzac's Le Chef d'Oeuvre Inconnu. The greatest affinity the two artists share, however, is not a formal one but involves the creation of a personal mythology, reflected here in Cocteau's obsession with doubles and mirror images, and in recurring figures like the "poet" and the "statue-muse."

Documented in the sketches are celebrities like Coco Chanel and Nijinsky, as well as Cocteau's lover and muse Jean Marais, the cross-dressing trapeze sensation Barbette, and Marcel Khill, the young Algerian who proposed to Cocteau that he travel around the world in eighty days in imitation of the Jules Verne tale. …

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