Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was the original boundary pusher. No creative urge was safe from his efforts. He was many things—a poet, playwright, artist, clothes and set designer, choreographer, filmmaker, opium addict, memoirist and self-mythologizer. But most importantly he pushed the boundaries of art outward, serving as an inspiration to David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop and, even if indirectly, the haircuts of the Beatles. Ingrid Jensen explores the when, what, how, where and why Cocteau for PKM.

It’s nearly impossible to quantify the far-reaching influence of the French poet, novelist, designer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963).

A photograph of Iggy Pop, taken during his Berlin period, shows him sporting a sleek, vampirish black mullet and a sober tweed coat, a gold crucifix gleaming against his pale bare chest, clutching a copy of Cocteau’s famed addiction memoir, Opium. David Bowie took inspiration from Cocteau’s 1946 film of the same name in his song, “Beauty and Beast,” (which appears on the album Heroes.) Andy Warhol idolized Cocteau, and painted him frequently, working from old photos: in 2000, Carnegie Museum director Thomas Sokolowski stated that, “If Warhol had an early 20th century role model it would have been Cocteau, both in breadth of stylistic influence and flamboyance of personal lifestyle…”

“Beauty and the Beast” – David Bowie, from Heroes:

The writer Eve Babitz famously taped a Cocteau quote to her fridge door, reading: “The privileges of beauty are enormous,” as a surreptitious dieting tactic.

Perhaps the most interesting example of Cocteau’s wide-ranging influence can be seen in the early haircuts of the Beatles. Those “mop-tops” were adapted from a style worn by Jean Marais in Cocteau’s film, Orpheus. The late photographer Astrid Kircherr, who was an admirer of Cocteau, had cut her own hair into the style the after seeing the film. Her boyfriend, original Beatles’ bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, asked her to do his hair in the same fashion, and soon the rest of the band were clamoring for the chic and unusual cut.

Even from this relatively scant handful of examples, it’s immediately obvious that Jean Cocteau’s innovative work holds sway over pop, underground and rock n’ roll culture. His influence pervades photography, film, literature and fashion, like a strong, lingering perfume.

“I certainly hope that you have not become robots,” he said, gazing intently into the camera as though he could see Gen Z staring back at him: “…but on the contrary, that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.”

Jean Cocteau via Creative Commons

Jean Cocteau was born on July 5, 1889, in the French village of Maisons-Laffitte. When he was 10, his father killed himself. The tragedy was to inform much of Cocteau’s worldview and his growth as an artist and a thinker. The same year as his father’s suicide, probably as a coping mechanism, he began writing poetry. Six years later, he was a published author.

Ruminating on the mechanics of poetry years later, Cocteau said: “Poetry is a kind of superior mathematics, and let’s not forget, it’s almost always prophetical. There is a prophet in each poet and we are very humble about this, because a poet is…in a way a work-hand whose act engages a self, more profound than himself, which he doesn’t know too well…mysterious forces which inhabit him and which he knows poorly…I would go so far as to say: a schizophrenic who inhabits all of us and of whom almost all grown-ups are ashamed…”

by Jean Cocteau

As a young man, Cocteau had the sort of fey, frail, rose-petal beauty and studious countenance that is stereotypically associated with poets. He made a good model, and his likeness was painted by Modigliani, Leon Bakst, and Marie Laurencin.

“Poetry is a kind of superior mathematics, and let’s not forget, it’s almost always prophetical. There is a prophet in each poet.”

Cocteau didn’t like to put romantic urges into boxes, resisting terminology that categorized, but he did consider homosexuality to be “nobler,” than heterosexuality. For those who do like to put people’s desire into neatly labeled boxes, Cocteau is generally considered to have been bisexual. The infamous French music hall star, Mistinguett, often bragged that she was the first woman with whom Cocteau had a serious relationship. Cocteau never commented on her story, perhaps wishing to encourage the legend. Like most artists, he enjoyed shrouding himself in misty self-mythologizing, and Mistinguett in her eight-inch-high heels certainly enjoyed it too.

Drawing of a stage setting by Jean Cocteau

Cocteau was fascinated with the Ballet Russes, especially the mad genius of the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. When he asked Sergei Diaghilav, the company’s director, if he could collaborate artistically with the Ballet Russes, he was met with the suggestion: “Astonish me.” If he could do that, then he could work for the greatest dance company in the world. Cocteau must have succeeded, for he was soon hard at work making posters for the 1913 ballet season. In 1917, Cocteau helped write the avant-garde ballet, “Parade,” which was performed by the Ballet Russes with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and music by Erik Satie.

“Parade” – Cocteau, writer; Picasso, sets; Satie, music, a latter day adaptation:

In 1923, following the death of a close friend and paramour, Cocteau turned to opium to numb his grief and soon became addicted. He spent seven years under the influence, twice undergoing treatment for detoxification, until in the last months of his final cure, he recorded his experiences in Opium. What emerged was an addiction memoir that became a literary classic akin to Thomas de Quincey’s sensational 1821 publication, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. It also became something of a sacred text among the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s—or for anyone who was imbibing during the perilous slice of time when addiction was not yet considered an illness to be treated but a condition to be suffered until either the addiction ended, or you did.

“I’ve always preferred mythology to history, because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies while mythology is made up of lies that eventually become truths.”

“Life is a horizontal fall,” Cocteau wrote. “Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train, racing towards death. To take opium is to get off the train while it is still moving.”

Throughout his life, Cocteau never dedicated himself to the practice of a single artform but continued to work in all fields simultaneously: painting, illustration, writing, film, and dance, always learning new things, always pushing boundaries.

Jean Cocteau in stage costume

He collaborated with the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli on her fall 1937 collection. Schiaparelli’s camp, avant-garde ideas about clothing design delighted Cocteau, who found fashion slightly ridiculous and was pleased to see it being treated partly as comedy, partly as art. To the collection, he contributed a trompe l’oeil sketch that was either of faces staring at each other, or a vase of roses, depending on how the viewer perceived it—that Schiaparelli embroidered on the back of a floor-length black gown, overtly stressing the idea that clothing could turn the wearer into a sort of walking canvas, a mobile artwork. Still, Cocteau was dismissive of fashion as an art form, claiming, “The prettiest dresses are worn to be taken off.”

“Life is a horizontal fall,” Cocteau wrote. “Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train, racing towards death. To take opium is to get off the train while it is still moving.”

1937 was a landmark year for Cocteau—it was the year he met the actor and heartthrob Jean Marais, who would become his lover and remain his friend for the rest of his life. Rail-thin, with a grizzled mop of salt and pepper hair and a narrow, weather-beaten face, the 48-year-old Cocteau had become an unlikely superstar. With his creamy skin and statuesque, athletic body, Jean Marais made for a surreal juxtaposition against Cocteau’s wasted features.

In 1946, immediately following the end of World War II, Cocteau began production on a film adaptation of the classic fairytale, Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps the creation of a fantasy was the appropriate response to a tragedy of unbelievable proportions—a small step in the healing that has not yet finished, nor will likely ever be. Cocteau wrote and directed the film, the production of which proved fraught with difficulty and tension, causing him to briefly return to opium usage.

La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) (1947) – Trailer

Jean Marais starred as the Beast. Feeling that his good looks had caused his considerable acting chops to overlooked, Marais had jumped at the opportunity to play the Beast, to hide his classical features under a mask of heavy makeup, fur and fangs.

Cocteau’s vivid, restless imagination delighted in the surreal and the symbolic. “A film is a petrified fountain of thought,” he said, and worked intently on making each image in Beauty and the Beast relevant and striking. Each frame of the black and white film is so perfect as to stamp itself on your brain like a branding iron. In the passageways of the Beast’s mansion, disembodied human arms hold candelabras aloft. Jeanette Day, as Belle, levitates in slow motion as she explores the Beast’s mansion, in a state of shock and wonder. Faces sculpted into the fireplaces blink and come to life whenever a room is entered. A thousand enchanting and exquisite details make Beauty and the Beast a masterpiece. Tennessee Williams called the final product, “As fluid and effortless as the flow of a dream.” The director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) went even farther, calling Beauty and the Beast “the most perfect cinematic fable ever told.”

“A film is a petrified fountain of thought”

Cocteau’s next adventure in moviemaking was The Testament of Orpheus, a retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set amongst the Left-Bank café society of postwar Paris. “I’ve always preferred mythology to history, because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies while mythology is made up of lies that eventually become truths,” Cocteau said years later.

Testament of Orpheus – Trailer

Cocteau died October 11, 1963, at his home in Milly-la-fôret. A year before his death, he had had himself filmed addressing the year 2000. Sitting at a worn wooden table, he faced the camera and spoke to an invisible, as-of-yet unborn audience for nearly 25 minutes. “I certainly hope that you have not become robots,” he said, gazing intently into the camera as though he could see Gen Z staring back at him: “…but on the contrary, that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.”

Jean Cocteau wearing a stage mask
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