Jean Cocteau

For such a bold innovator in ballet, film, theater, and creative writing, Jean Cocteau was a surprisingly tame draftsman. Apart from a couple of early flirtations with Cubism, an amazingly grotesque c. 1920 caricature of his friend Proust, and the bizarre Self-Portrait, Multiplied Under the Effect of Opium, c. 1925–27, Cocteau's modest drawings are mostly reserved, linear, and rather academic-imagine Ingres without the fanatical lucidity or Neoclassical Picasso without the bite. This exhibition documented almost sixty years’ worth of Cocteau's work on paper, supplemented by photographs and posters from his films and plays as well as portraits of him by other artists.

By presenting this show at the Andy Warhol Museum, the curators naturally drew attention td the similarities between Cocteau and the Pop icon. As the thematic organization of the-exhibition hints, most of Cocteau’s concerns—drugs, eroticism, fashion, celebrities, and religion—were Warhol’s too. Both were politically unreliable Catholics who attached themselves to famous personalities; but unlike Warhol, Cocteau lacked the will or talent to become a major visual artist. One need only compare Picabia’s portrait of him or Picasso’s 1917 drawing Jean Cocteau and Marie Shabelska with Cocteau’s image of the same scene to see the distance between his facility and real talent. His practical experience with ballet and film and his friendships with major artists seem not to have affected his drawing, and as a draftsman he didn’t develop. Indeed, much of the frankly commercial late work from the ’50s—a study for a postage stamp, Marianne in Profile, 1960; an Air France poster, c. 1952—marks a sharp decline in his art.

So Cocteau’s drawings are of more interest for their documentary than their aesthetic value. On view were portraits of Josephine Baker, Yul Brymer, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Colette, Diaghilev, Arthur Rubinstein, Picasso, Erik Satie, and Georges Simenon, along with a great number of fashion sketches. Cocteau, one feels, always thought of himself as on display, even when he was alone, which perhaps explains why his homoerotic drawings are so marvelously unself-conscious. Religion, too, was seemingly but a branch of fashion for him: The studies for the murals and stained-glass window of the Chapel of Saint-Pierre, Villefranche-sur-Mer, c. 1958, are stylistically akin to the drawings of mythological scenes from his films. Ultimately this outsider turned himself into the man of the establishment who wore a 1955 French academician’s jacket, which was also on view.

What is most original here is the way in which Cocteau often promiscuously intermingled image and word, filling in the spaces between drawn faces with a narrative. “With the writer,” he wrote, “line takes precedent over form and content. It runs through the words he assembles. It strikes a continuous note unperceived by ear or eye. It is, in a way, the soul’s style.” This odd observation suggests how much Cocteau valued the ultimate unity of his life and art. Like his handwriting, his drawn line is always elegant and controlled. But while Cocteau frequently was deranged by seriously unruly passion, the drawing by this very French master of the art of living never crosses the bounds of civility. Could his soul’s style really have been as serene as these drawings suggest?

David Carrier