ISBN: 190347017X

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A Review of: Cocteau
by George Fetherling

Jean Cocteau, whose work seemed to touch and sometimes helped shape most of the art forms of his time, was the subject of a truly massive exhibition mounted by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2003. In May this year, it moved to the Muse des Beaux Arts in Montreal, where it will run through the summer. I dearly wish I could get there to see it. But I've done the next best thing and spent a good deal of time with the catalogue entitled simply Cocteau or at least the English translation of it by Trista Selous.
In the version of the North American curatorial tradition that's in fashion nowadays, the book-of-the-exhibition often resembles the director's-cut DVD of a film you liked just the way it was originally-without the alternative endings, wisely deleted scenes, interviews with bored stars and other pathetic attempts at value-added marketing. This catalogue, however, is something quite different. It can show only highlights of the exhibition, which includes many hundreds of Cocteau's drawings and photographs, 32 of his films and other audio-visual works and nearly 300 metres of glass cases containing a sampling of his books, notebooks, letters and manuscripts. But it more than compensates for unavoidably falling short of documentary completeness by presenting a series of original essays that give us the very thing we lack: some understanding of how Cocteau actually seems to the French today.
Cocteau was born in 1889, the same year as that other Parisian landmark, the Eiffel Tower, and he enjoyed a good long run. Mordecai Richler wrote of meeting him at a party in the 1950s, for example. By then, to judge from his published diaries from that decade, he was tired and no doubt depressed. One entry reads: "Wednesday, I'll leave France, happy to be at sea. Our France of 1953 is like a little literary' cafe, filled with smoke, pretentiousness, and stupidity." Another from the same year states that "America has nothing to look forward to but ruin. Now it's Brazil's turn (and Canada's)." His heyday was in the 1920s, his own thirties, when he dazzled Europe with the spectacle of his genius, like-it seems to us now-some weird Gallic combination of Orson Welles, Noel Coward and Leonard Cohen.
He was bourgeois by origin, calling his family "too artistic for me to be able to rebel against them, and not artistic enough to give me useful advice." The quotation is found in Francis Steegmuller's book Cocteau, published in 1970, which I believe is the most rewarding of the various attempts at biography in English, though Frederick Brown's An Impersonation of Angels (1968) is a close second. Cocteau's father was a failed homme d'affaires who committed suicide, his mother a constant booster of her remarkable son's career. When Cocteau was 18, for example, she arranged for one of the most famous actors of the day to give a public reading of her son's poetry. That was a ticket to success. From that point forward he met everybody who was important.
By the time of the Great War, in which he drove a field ambulance, Cocteau was a friend of the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the composer Erik Satie and nearly all the other leaders of the avant-garde. Typically, he once wrote the libretto for a work for which Satie wrote the score and Picasso, another lifelong friend, designed the sets. Although his main means of expression was poetry and fiction-he operated quite a literary factory-he also became a visual artist (though only infrequently a painter), a choreographer, a composer, a musician, an actor, a singer, a designer, even a maker of masks-and much else besides. In short, anything on which someone he admired concentrated, he felt he could add to his own catalogue of talents, holding together all the elements by force of style and personality. Among the surprises in the exhibition catalogue are some dress designs he did for Coco Chanel.
As Dominique Paini writes with splendid understatement, "One cannot fail to be struck by Cocteau's sharp awareness of the diversity of his creativity, the multitude of different activities he pursued at the same time, and of the polymorphousness engendered by the different media he used." Paini is the editor of the catalogue and contributes the most significant essay, wrestling with the problem of what the French thought about Cocteau when he was alive and how they feel about him now, 40 years after his death.
Although he was instrumental in the rise of surrealism and Dada, Cocteau never quite got his due from either of those movements. In the case of surrealism, this was because Andr Breton cultivated an intense hatred of him, an emotion many attribute to Breton's homophobia. Other observers were less caustic but equally dismissive. As Cocteau's art was not always easy to separate from his celebrity, which was vast, Franois Mauriac doubted that any of the work, in whatever discipline or genre, would outlive its creator. Certainly only a relatively small percentage of the fruit that spilled from Cocteau's cornucopia has survived. But some of what he did has entered the cultural canon. This is especially true of his films-not necessarily the many he merely wrote but the six he directed. Le sang d'un pote, La belle et la bte and Orphe in particular are probably studied at every film school on earth. Although Cocteau called film "a petrified fountain of thought"(and believed that holding a gala premire was like "baptising your child among cannibals"), his films, like most of his creative work, are intensely poetic. In film, as on stage and elsewhere, he retold classical myths such as Oedipus or Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, the one with the reptile problem.
Andr Breton aside, one would suppose from reading the relevant memoirs and such that most everyone who met Cocteau was attracted to him or at the very least liked him. No less unworldly a person as Jacques Maritain, the great neo-Thomist philosopher and theologian, tried to help Cocteau kick his opium habit (unsuccessfully-Cocteau spent the rest of his life striking the gong). He had a wonderfully open and triangular face that didn't change shape, or even expression, as he aged. No wonder so many of the great painters-Dufy, Modigliani, Picasso, Picabia, Rivera-painted portraits of him. The show includes 20 of these pictures, including a posthumous tribute from Andy Warhol.
Cocteau was also a magnet for photographers such as Man Ray, Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton. One of the most famous images (it's included in the catalogue) is by Philippe Halsman. It shows him, Shiva like, with six hands: one holding a book, another a pen, a third smoking a cigarette, and so on. This is comment on his range of talents, of course, but it's also one of the many studies of his famously beautiful fingers: long, slender and graceful. The catalogue includes a full-length essay by Pierre Caizergues on the iconography of Cocteau's hands.
Paini comments that unposed photographs of Cocteau are rare. Even a shot of him on his deathbed in 1963 looks artfully posed-and bears an eerie similarity to Cocteau's drawing of his stage-door mother in her own last hours. The only other example included in the catalogue shows him leaving the inquiry where he was acquitted of having collaborated with the Nazis simply because he refused to let them chase him out of Paris but stayed on throughout the occupation, working, keeping his elegant head down. Like so many other artists, he professed disinterest in politics. He also foreswore philosophy, as when, inverting Ren Descartes' dictum, he said, not very convincingly, "I do not think, therefore I am. All thought paralyses action." And no one can deny that he was in constant motion.
The suspicion he was met with in the immediate postwar period was matched by another controversy near the end of his life when he was made one of the Forty Immortals of the Acadmie franaise. Typically for Cocteau, he was photographed fencing with the ceremonial sword that's part of the Prisoner of Zenda-like uniform worn by members. That no doubt deflected some of the accusations that he was taking his eminence too seriously. So however likable he was personally, Cocteau suffered a great deal of professional criticism in his life. It's easy to see why: he could do too many things well. Paini writes that "his insufficiencies seemed confirmed by the fact that he had a finger in every pie." Moreover, he was famous for being so multi-talented. ("Self-awareness," she writes, "was one of Cocteau's first drugs...")
Whether the criticism was inspired by envy or aesthetic differences, Cocteau used it "to devise a complicated dialectic of exhibitionism and invisibility, worldly prestige and suffering solitude, lightness of being and unremitting self-analysis, a supple readiness for anything that might come up and retreat into self-portraiture." This brings her round to his standing today:

"The problem is sizeable and contradictory; how do we stand up and defend a figure who was, in a way, too much loved? Indeed an affectionate, idolatrous community loves him too much still, its touchy dissatisfaction corresponding in degree to the disdain with which many institutions have regarded him over 50 years. Museums and universities leave Jean Cocteau to one side (other than as an inevitable witness to every crucial moment in the 20th century)."

Writing of Cocteau more than a decade ago, a Paris correspondent of the Economist told readers that "few people have a bad word to say about him any more." The catalogue of the Paris-Montreal exhibition (the show's full title is "Jean Cocteau, sur le fil du sicle") certainly seems to bear that out.

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