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10 Things To Know About Jean Cocteau
Get inspired 09 Aug 2022

10 Things To Know About Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau
Untitled homoerotic prints from the White Book series, published in 1930

Famous artist and writer, Jean Cocteau became an influential figure at the tender age of 17. He marked his time with his insatiable curiosity, his abundance of creativity and his avant-garde vision. But how to sum up Cocteau exactly? Discover the 10 things to know about this fabulous artist!

1. The Rite of Spring was a revelation for Jean Cocteau

In 1913, Jean Cocteau saw the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the famous ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky. Overwhelmed by such non-conformity, this performance was a real revelation for Cocteau. It was after this experience that he wrote and illustrated Le Potomak, which is considered his first major work. He later said “My work begins with The Potomak; it is a kind of preface.”

portrait of the artist
Jean Cocteau, 1923 © Agence Meurisse

2. Jean Cocteau understood the art of curiosity

Writer, painter, filmmaker, draughtsman and illustrator… Jean Cocteau is the archetype of the protean artist. He even tried his hand at mosaic, pottery, and even textile arts such as tapestry. Even if he considered himself first a poet, his art is, above all, that of astonishment. A creation which, all his life, will be born out of an insatiable curiosity.

Jean Cocteau
Poster for Le Spectre de la rose, 1911

3. He had a painful proximity to death

Jean Cocteau was confronted with death at a very early age, losing his father to suicide at the age of 9. Years later he suffered a second loss of a loved one. His very close friend, writer and poet Raymond Radiguet died in 1923, plunging Cocteau into a severe depression. Despite his affliction, this confrontation with grief seems to have given the artist an even more pronounced gratitude for life.

Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet
Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet © The Paris Review

4. Marais and Cocteau had a loving and creative encounter

Cocteau met the young French actor Jean Marais during an audition for Œdipe Roi in 1938. He immediately admired this man who was 24 years his junior. The beginning of their relationship also marked the beginning of a long and beautiful artistic collaboration. The year they met, Cocteau wrote the play Les Parents terribles, which propelled the career of the Marais. Their symbiosis would give birth to The Sacred Monsters, Beauty and the Beast and The Eternal Return.

Jean Cocteau
Jean Cocteau in Jean Marais’ dressing room. Performance of La Machine infernale. Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, © Roger-Viollet, 1954.

5. He was a prolific and relentless producer

Jean Cocteau was inexhaustible and incredibly prolific. He had the ability to write masterpieces in record time. This was notably the case with Les Enfants terribles, which he wrote in seventeen days. Nine years later, it was the turn of Les Parents terribles, completed in only eight days.

Cocteau and Marais during the shooting of Testament d'Orphée, 1959
Cocteau and Marais during the shooting of Testament d’Orphée, 1959 © Lucien Clergue

6. Jean Cocteau was a regular recipient of awards

The recognition of Jean Cocteau was considerable and multiple. He received the Legion of Honor in 1949 and was a Jury member at the Cannes Film Festival four years later. The year 1955 marked his election to the French Academy, where he took the seat of Jérôme Tharaud.

Jean Cocteau
De ses filles, de son vin, un français peut être vain, 1961, available on Artsper

7. Mourning and addiction: Jean Cocteau had his demons

Cocteau’s first love – and perhaps his greatest – was Raymond Radiguet. Following his tragic death, Cocteau began taking opium. Despite a stay in a detoxification clinic, he never really managed to stop. Several works testify to his tumultuous relationship with drugs, such as his album Maison de Santé or Opium, Journal d’une désintoxication.

Double Face, 1960, available on Artsper

8. He was an emblematic figure of his time

Cocteau’s talent was never doubted by his contemporaries. As early as 1909, he was enjoying great success. It was first his meeting with Édouard De Max that opened the doors of the literary and artistic world to him. Gradually, Cocteau became friends with the geniuses of his era: Apollinaire, Coco Chanel, Anna de Noailles, Marcel Proust, Tristan Tzara, Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard and Edith Piaf.  Both an avant-garde figure and a reflection of his time, Jean Cocteau was much appreciated by his contemporaries.

Jean Cocteau
Innamorati, 1961, availabe on Artsper

9. Jean Cocteau was eternally a child

Even at the end of his life, Jean Cocteau still let his childlike soul express itself. He took care to maintain a link with a form of mischief proper to the first years of existence. By way of example, Cocteau was fascinated by fabrics with panther prints. Like decorative cuddly toys, he remained faithful to them until his death, lining his walls or covering his body with this motif.

Objets de, ca. 1960, a Surrealist portrait of Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman
Objets de, ca. 1960, a Surrealist portrait of Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman

10. Literature was his escape

Cocteau was a complex character — expansive, evolving, tortured, hypersensitive.  He reinvented himself constantly, for the greatest pleasure of art, but not always for his personal well-being. Very early literature took a therapeutic role in his life. It was a real escape that yet helped him to face real difficulties.

Jean Cocteau
The Olympus, 1920, available on Artsper

A prolific legacy

Resolutely avant-gardist, Cocteau marked his time in an indelible way. And even today his work still continues to touch the passionate ones of art and literature, inspiring them to dream and to transcend. Above all, he offers the possibility of seeing— through reflection or contemplation— beyond appearances. For as he was so fond of saying, “Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images.”

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