Introduction-Jean Cocteau: Evangelist of the Avant-Garde

By Gordon, Tom | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Introduction-Jean Cocteau: Evangelist of the Avant-Garde


Gordon, Tom, Canadian University Music Review


It was the bibliophile and literary critic Adrienne Monnier who quipped of Jean Cocteau, "He is never the first to leap over the barricades, but he is always the one to plant the flag." Harsh perhaps, but not without substance as an assessment of Cocteau's position in the cultural history of the twentieth century. The cruel truth is that Cocteau does not rank among the first echelon of this century's most original artists. But Adrienne Monnier's assessment also hints at two critical aspects of Cocteau's career: he crossed borders - many of them - and he had a great talent for bringing the public's attention to these border crossings. Few artists of any age have worked in so many styles and across so many artistic media. Cocteau the poet; Cocteau the dramatist; Cocteau the artist/designer; Cocteau the critic; Cocteau the film maker; Cocteau the musical advocate; Cocteau the publicist. And he ranks among the very few artists of any age whose sheer visibility made them inevitable at the defining events of an epoch. A participant in so many of the great moments of twentieth-century art, he became both their emblem and their spokesman, raising the flag for movements from surrealism to neo-classicism; from the bejangled exoticism of the early Ballets russes to the austere symbolism of his enigmatic films.

In this special issue of the Canadian University Music Review we examine several new tangents of an already much chronicled career. The six essays will offer two complementary approaches to Cocteau on and across the borders of the arts of the twentieth century: interdisciplinary analysis and new criticism. A wide range of interdisciplinary approaches will be invoked in the analysis of selected works from among Cocteau's musical collaborations. Among these are the pre-Parade works prompted by Cocteau's musical discoveries in Le Sacre du printemps (Tom Gordon, Bishop's University and Memorial University of Newfoundland); Cocteau and the avant-garde collaborations at the Ballets suédois with members of Les Six (Jacinthe Harbec, Université de Sherbrooke); and the fruits of the long working relationship Cocteau enjoyed with composer Georges Auric across the seven films they made together (Simon Wood, York University, and James Deaville, McMaster University). …

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