Jean Cocteau

“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 Poète (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. The drawings are peopled as well by characters from Cocteau’s films, such as Dargelos, the brutal schoolboy from Le Sang d’un Poète and Les Enfants Terribles (The Strange Ones, 1950), and Heurtebise, the glazier-angel who guides the hero through the underworld in Orphée (1949). Cocteau’s life and art were intricately intertwined: The deadly snowball fight in Le Sang d’un Poète emerged from a childhood memory, while such events as his father’s suicide, the untimely death of his protégé Raymond Radiguet, and the murder of his friend Jean Desbordes by the gestapo are reflected not only in his continual investigation of the theme of mortality, but in the elegiac tone that surfaces even in some of his more fanciful drawings.

Cocteau appeared in front of the camera lens with notorious frequency, and here one could see him in photographs and film stills taken by Dora Maar, Berenice Abbott, Cecil Beaton, and others. Two works by Abbott capture Cocteau’s fascination with masks—as well as his famously expressive hands—while an anonymous photo shows him “writing” in the air with light (which he called “cinematic ink”). Most of these shots required Cocteau’s playful participation, but at least one was more candid: A touching image in which the poet relaxes on the floor beside a stained, shabby divan, the photo somehow calls to mind his struggles with drug addiction, illnesses real and imagined, and the feelings of painful solitude to which he sometimes alluded in his writings.

In his notes on draftsmanship, which are more intriguing for their poetic inflection than for any insight into drawing as a medium, Cocteau describes line as “the permanence of personality” and “the style of the soul.” These remarks suggest that the best way to approach his two-dimensional work is as a pure expression of the personal obsessions that he more successfully transformed into art in his writing, cinema, and poetry.

Kristin M. Jones