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Jean Cocteau - Biography and Legacy

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

Born: July 5, 1889 - Maisons-Laffitte, France
Died: October 11, 1963 - Milly-la-Forêt, France

Biography of Jean Cocteau


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.

After his father's death, Cocteau was enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet, a private school. Cocteau struggled with his classes, succeeding only in drawing and gymnastics, and was eventually expelled for his repeated absences, after which he was given private lessons at home. Cocteau spent his teenage years close to the theatre; he created his own plays with René Rocher, a friend from the Lycée Condorcet, and the pair came to know actress Mistinguett, who courted the affections of her son's friends. Mistinguett later claimed that she was the first woman to sleep with Jean Cocteau, a story he neither confirmed nor denied, though he noted that his first sexual experience was with Albert Botten, a jockey, after which his mother warned him to think of the honor of the family. Cocteau failed the bac, the French high school diploma exam, twice and began to write poetry, in which his idealization of the past, fear of death and deep sadness is clearly evident.

In 1907, Cocteau and his mother moved permanently to Paris, settling in the city's northwest. Eugénie Lecomte, determined to remain a widow, shifted her affections onto her youngest son, who remained, like a child, unable to distinguish between myth and reality, imagining himself as the son of a foreign diplomat or an archaeologist. Cocteau's relationship with his mother left him practiced at pleasing others, creating an illusion of happiness out of fear that his sadness might be upsetting; the pair never spoke of Georges Cocteau's death.

Early Training and Work

Jean Cocteau, portrait by Modigliani, oil on canvas (1916), Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey

In Paris, Cocteau threw himself into the world of literary salons. He befriended Lucien Daudet, a novelist and painter, who gave him confidence and introduced him to a group of writers involved with Symbolism. At eighteen, Cocteau met Édouard de Max, a celebrated actor, who arranged a public reading of Cocteau's poetry. This gave Cocteau's mother confidence, only nine months after his second failure at the bac, that he had not inherited his father's weaknesses and she took him to Italy to reward him for this success. In Venice, Jean Cocteau had a brief affair with Raymond Laurent, who shot himself an hour after Cocteau left him on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute.

Jacques-Émile Blanche - Portrait de Jean Cocteau (1912)

Upon return, Cocteau moved out of his mother's house and across the river, to a flat in the Hôtel Biron, where other tenants included Auguste Rodin and Isadora Duncan. Cocteau's love affairs were characterized by their unrequited nature, with the artist constantly on either side of mismatched passions. While living in the Hôtel Biron, he had a relationship with Christiane Mancini, a theatre student, which ended after she sent Cocteau letters detailing her desire and suffering. He was more successful professionally during those years, publishing two collections, Aladdin's Lamp (1908) and The Frivolous Prince (1910).

Portrait of Cocteau by Federico de Madrazo y Ochoa (c. 1910-12)

In 1910, Cocteau moved back to his mother's apartment in Rue d'Anjou. He began a relationship with Madeleine Carlier, an actress much older than him, who did not share his intensity of feeling, which ended when Carlier became pregnant and had an abortion, rejecting Cocteau's suggestion of marriage. Cocteau founded a journal, Scheherazade, which introduced him to contributors including Pierre Bonnard, Natalie Barney and Marie Laurencin. Cocteau met Maurice Rostand, with whom he had a relatively happy relationship; the pair were lovers, collaborated on poems, and became known for wearing outfits inspired by their shared love of the infamous writer Oscar Wilde to society events. Cocteau's closest friends during this period were Marcel Proust and Anna de Noailles, both of whom he worshipped and had deliberately sought out.

Cocteau was insistent in making connections that aligned with the art that he admired and wished to produce, pursuing collaborators with a persistence that often alienated others. After seeing Vaslav Nijinsky perform in 1909, Cocteau began to pursue Sergei Diaghilev, hoping to write the libretto for the Ballet Russes; he succeeded, in 1912, with The Blue God, which was a critical and popular failure.

In 1914, Cocteau presented himself to be enlisted, but found himself exempted from military service due to a weak constitution. Instead, he was instructed to collect milk from farms to give to troops departing to fight in World War I. After this, Cocteau joined Misia Sert, a Parisian socialite, on an amateur ambulance crew outfitted by fashion designer Paul Poiret. In 1915, Cocteau was sent to the front at Coxyde as an engineer; he took photos and drew, seeing war as dreamlike. His perspective, divorced as it was from the reality of war, led to his unpopularity with the soldiers. These experiences would inform Cocteau's novel about the war, Thomas the Imposter (1923).

World War I changed Cocteau's stylistic interests. He became interested in Cubism and distanced himself from Proust and de Noailles, who were becoming outdated, instead pursuing Pablo Picasso with gifts of tobacco and requests for portraits which went unanswered. Picasso eventually came to accept Cocteau, though hesitantly, and accepted his invitation to work on sets for Parade, which was performed in 1917, with music by Erik Satie.

Portrait de Jean Cocteau by Marie Laurencin (1921)

Shortly after this, Cocteau met the fifteen-year-old Raymond Radiguet, with whom he became obsessed. Radiguet was protégé, muse, collaborator and unrequited love interest to Cocteau, who drew pictures of him as he slept, but was devastated by his uncertainty regarding Radiguet's feelings for him, eventually realising the teenager was exclusively attracted to women. Cocteau informed Radiguet's father that he would assist with Radiguet's literary future, which he did, introducing him to Bernard Grasset, who published his first novel. The pair remained close until Radiguet's death, from typhoid fever, at age twenty.

Throughout the 1920s, Cocteau was bullied by the Surrealists, who saw him as a symbol of the poetry they wished to destroy. Cocteau wrote to writer Louis Aragon, who was friendlier than others in the group, asking why "this nastiness, at once confused and meticulous," persisted, but didn't receive a clear answer; it appears that the enmity was driven by André Breton's homophobia and envy over Cocteau's friendship with the writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire alongside distaste for Cocteau's floral prose and Romantic attachment to fairy tales. Cocteau received death threats from Robert Desnos, a central Surrealist writer, and disturbing anonymous phone calls during this period.

In 1926, Cocteau met Jean Desbordes, a lover with whom he would live until 1933. Desbordes inspired Cocteau to create work engaging more directly with his sexuality, the result of which was The White Book, published in an edition of only thirty copies in 1928. Cocteau was bisexual and demisexual, though he largely refrained from categorizing sexuality, but viewed homosexuality as nobler and purer than heterosexuality. Cocteau published The White Book anonymously, so as to avoid upsetting his mother, but signed copies for friends and acquaintances and illustrated the larger edition that appeared in 1930, tacitly admitting authorship.

Cocteau was using opium regularly throughout this period. In 1928, he entered a clinic in Saint-Cloud in order to cure himself of the addiction, writing Les Enfants terrible (1929) as a patient and Opium: The Diary of an Addict (1930) shortly after leaving. Cocteau befriended Jacques Maritain, a philosopher, and Charles Henrion, a Catholic priest, during this time. Cocteau continued to use opium throughout his life, feeling that it enhanced his artistic output.

Mature Period

In 1929, Marie Laure and Charles de Noailles offered Cocteau a million francs - quite a substantial amount for Cocteau, though a smaller budget than that granted to commercial directors - to direct a film, leading to The Blood of a Poet, completed in 1930. The film, ending with a child's death, caused outrage, with the Prefect of Police trying to prevent its distribution. In 1932, when the film was finally released, with some changes, the media referred to it as a "surrealist film," angering the Surrealists, who accused Cocteau of plagiarizing Luis Buñuel and waited outside his door, hoping to attack him physically.

Cocteau had moved toward theatre and film because he felt that he was failing as a poet and had been rejected by his friends of five years earlier. He withdrew to his room for much of the decade, replacing the world with his own inventions. In 1932, he met Natalie Paley, a married Russian princess, who shared his desire to escape reality; the pair embarked on an affair, fueled by opium, in which they left the house only to see Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich movies. This ended when Paley, imagining that she was pregnant, returned to her husband, devastating Cocteau. The mutually destructive escapism of this relationship illustrates the way in which Cocteau's life and work paralleled one another, with critics later commenting on the similarity to his earlier novel, Les Enfants terribles, which had, in fact, initially attracted Paley to Cocteau.

The onset of the Depression meant a lack of opportunities for artists to make films, but Cocteau continued to write plays throughout the decade, with those performed including La voix humaine (1930), The Infernal Machine (1934), The Knights of the Round Table (1937), Les parents terribles (1938) and La machine à écrire (1941). In the late 1930s, he also began writing popular songs and a column for Paris-Soir detailing his trip around the world in 1936. He became close friends with Edith Piaf, writing Le Bel Indifférent for her in 1940. Cocteau's work became unfashionable, however, as art took on an increasingly political role in the years prior to World War II.

In 1937, Cocteau met Jean Marais, an actor who would remain a close friend and intermittent lover for the remainder of his life; Marais would also star in many of Cocteau's later films. Cocteau's views on World War II were largely shaped by his anxiety about Marais, who was sent to the front in 1940 and subsequently joined the Resistance, and by his ongoing confusion about the relationship between art, identity and politics. In 1940, Cocteau was a supporter of the League Against Anti-Semitism, which led Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a prominent right-wing writer, to issue calls for Cocteau to be shot; in 1941, the 17th Squadron bombed a staging of Les Parents terribles with tear gas and released rats in the audience, ostensibly due to Cocteau's difficulty fitting within existing categories.

In 1942, however, Cocteau became friends with Arno Breker, a German sculptor who used his connections in the Nazi Party to intervene, at Cocteau's request, to remove Jean Marais's name from the Nazi death-list after Marais punched a rightwing critic. Cocteau wrote an article celebrating Breker's work, resulting in outrage amongst the Parisian artistic community; Breker, who had by this point been selected by Adolf Hitler as Official State Sculptor, temporarily persuaded Cocteau to support the Nazi Party, appealing to the poet's love of myth. Cocteau's attitude, throughout the war, was shaped by self-interest, not ethics.

Late Period

In 1945, Cocteau returned to directing films with Beauty and the Beast, starring Jean Marais. He consequently directed The Eagle with Two Heads (1948) and Les Parents terribles (1948). In 1950, he directed Orpheus, the second film, after The Blood of a Poet, in a set that would become known as the Orphic Trilogy. This starred Jean Marais, as did Cocteau's last film and the last in this set, The Testament of Orpheus, completed in 1960, which included cameos from a number of celebrities Cocteau had befriended, including Pablo Picasso.

Cocteau met Francine Weisweiller, who became a close friend and patron, while filming Les Enfants terribles in 1950, and moved to her home in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where he would live throughout the decade. Cocteau decorated and painted the villa, making a film, La Villa Santo-Sospir (1952), about this project. Cocteau's lifelong work was recognized during this decade by his appointment as a member of the Belgian Academy in 1954 and the French Academy in 1955. He spent much of this decade painting, having found in it the ability to forget himself, providing some relief from his depression. He painted chapels in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Milly-la-Forêt, London and Frejus, a theatre in Cap d'Ail and a wedding room in Menton. He returned to Milly-la-Forêt, where he had kept a house with Jean Marais, shortly before his death in 1963.

The Legacy of Jean Cocteau

Bust of Jean Cocteau in Villefranche-sur-Mer by Jacques Lipchitz

While unpopular with those around him, Jean Cocteau and his work have had a significant impact on a later generation. His influence on the Pop great Andy Warhol, who shared Cocteau's fascination with celebrity, his eagerness to borrow from the surrounding culture, his excitement about collaboration and his interest in moving between media, is particularly clear. Cocteau's combination of ancient and modern reference points, while controversial in his day, resonates clearly in postmodern experimentation with 'high' and 'low' culture; postmodern multi-media superstars Jean Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez's iconic Grace Jones Maternity Dress (1979) is, in both its aesthetic and relationship to performance, progeny of Cocteau's Parade.

Cocteau's influence can also be seen in the media in which he worked. Composer John Adams shared Cocteau's interest in combining contemporary life with rarefied art forms, as seen in his 1987 opera Nixon Goes to China. Director Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of Les Enfants terribles, The Dreamers (2003), shows his debt to both Cocteau's themes and habit of borrowing from those around him, while director Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012) draws upon Cocteau's use of dream imagery in film. Tom of Finland, known for his erotic drawings, continues Cocteau's exploration of sexuality and the male body, while photographs by Pierre et Gilles similarly explore self-fashioning and desire.

In Cocteau's final years, he was offered the opportunity to create a museum in Menton, which opened as the Musée du Bastion in 1966, three years after the artist's death, featuring restoration work by Cocteau and a small collection donated by the artist himself. In 2003, the city began raising money for a more substantial museum of Cocteau's work, which opened in 2011, with a collection bequeathed by an American businessman, Séverin Wunderman. This museum, the Musée Jean Cocteau, is connected to and shares its collection with the Musée du Bastion, enabling rotating exhibitions that have introduced Cocteau's work to a new generation of Mediterranean visitors.

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair

"Jean Cocteau Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair
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First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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