'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

05 January 2011

Jean Cocteau

Click all photos to enlarge
Lurking in the wings.
It is difficult not to marvel at the long past days when you might go to the theatre that may be produced by Diaghilev, danced by Nijinsky with the music of Stravinsky or Satie and the sets painted by Picasso. Some of the group of artists who came and went through each others lives and at the centre of all this was Jean Cocteau, perhaps contributing, perhaps lurking vicariously in the wings. 
Cocteau with Picasso and Stravinsky     the beautiful Nijinsky     Cocteau with Diaghilev
Cocteau wrote, drew, painted, designed, created objects of stunning beauty, produced, filmed and smoked opium. He adopted those he loved and depended on those who loved him. As if this was not  enough he appeared to be a catalyst to all that was about him. He was a true Muse in a period that changed the arts and in which much of the modern art, music and theatre blossomed and set the standards for our generations..  
Poet, writer, artist, and film maker Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was born to a wealthy family on the 5th. of July 1889 in a small town near Paris. His father died or committed suicide when he was about 10 years old. He began school in 1900 but after being expelled in 1904 he ran away to the Red Light District in Marseilles. He was found by the police living under a false name and returned to his uncle’s care. When he was 17 or 18, he fell in love with a 30 year old actress, Madeleine Carlier. In 1908, Cocteau associated himself with the great tragedian Edouard de Max, who encouraged Cocteau to write and on the 4th. of April  that year rented the Theatre Femina topremiere the his poetry.

In 1909, he met Sergey Daighilev and the Ballets Russes. Daighilev encouraged Cocteau to venture into  ballet and challenged him to ‘Surprise me’, so Cocteau wrote the libretto for an exotic ballet called “Le Dieu Bleu”. He also met composer Igor Stravinsky who was working  “The Rite of Spring”. In 1914, Cocteau went to Switzerland to see Stravinsky and while there he finished his first book, ‘Le Potomak’. During the First World War Cocteau helped run an ambulance service, met with a group of marines, got arrested and returned to civilian life in 1915. At left is a poster by Cocteau for Nijinsky in The Rose.

In 1917, he met Pablo Picasso and went to Rome where they met up with Diaghilev. At this point, Cocteau helped prepare the ballet “Parade”. Picasso designed the sets, Erik Satie wrote the music, and the ballet was choreographed by Leonide Massine. The Paris opening in May of that year was disasterous but gained success a few years later. He founded a publishing house called “Editions de la Sirene” which published Cocteau’s writings and  Stravinsky’s and Satie’s scores. 

In 1918, Cocteau became friend, lover and mentor to the 15 year old novelist, Raymond Radiguet. This relationship strongly influenced Cocteau. When Radiguet died of typhoid in 1923 it drove Cocteau to opium. During his recovery from opium addiction, he created some of his most important works including the stage play ‘Orphee’ and the novel ‘Les Enfants terribles’.

In 1930 Cocteau’s first film, ‘Blood of a Poet’ was released. The adventures of a young poet condemned to walk the halls of the “Hotel of Dramatic Follies” for his crime of having brought a statue to life. In the early 1930’s, Cocteau wrote  ‘La Machine Infernal. - The Human Voice,-  The Knights of the Round Table, - Les parents terribles, -  and  The Typewriter.’ Then opium addiction returned and he did little until Jean Marais influenced him to return and make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in 1945. Marais stared in the film as the Beast, Beauty’s suitor, and the Prince.

In 1950, Cocteau directed the film Orpheus which again starred Marais and also decorated the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and began a series of graphic works. In 1954, on the death of his friend Collette, the novelist, Cocteau took her place in the Belgian Academy. In 1955, he was elected to the French Academy. In 1959, Cocteau made his last film , ‘The Testament of Orpheus’. It stared himself and also features cameos from many celebrities including Pablo Picasso and Yul Brynner. 

Diaghilev and Nijinsky
The short, historic, creative and destructive relationship between the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and the young schizophrenic dancer Vaslav Nijinsky produced some of the most memorable moments in Ballet history. Jean Cocteau jealously spent a time involved with and interfering in their lives which came to an end with Diaghilev’s death in Venice in 1929 and Nijinsky’s sad ending in an asylum, dying in 1950.

The Films
   Cocteau is most remembered these days for his films. Pieces such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’,  ‘The Blood of a Poet’, ‘Orphee’ and ‘Testament of Orpheus’,  still glow with the mythological, fairy-tale atmosphere that emanates from one of the most poetic collections in cinema. He also worked on a film by Jean-Pierre Melville of his novel ‘Les Enfants Terribles”. Cocteau may not have been the easiest, greatest or nicest of men but he had visions, passions and creativity that he continued to express, and this I admire. He left images that some may not recognise as belonging to Cocteau, but remain a great part of twentieth century cinema history.
 I have all on DVD.

Jean Marais  or “Jeannot” as Cocteau called him, was 24 when the two met. He was born 11 Dec. 1913 in Cherbourg. Marais had been stage-struck since he was a boy.  He was expelled from school when dressed as a girl and got a teacher to flirt with him. At fourteen he discharged a loaded revolver near his temple. His mother was a shoplifter, he acted as her lookout.  He went to work for a photographer and enrolled in drama classes. Marais’ career began when Jean Cocteau placed the actor in Oedipe-Roi in 1937, and then cast him as Galahad in Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde . For twenty-five years, love and work created an indissoluble bond between the two men. For 50 years Jean Marais was one of France’s best-known actors, on stage, screen, and television until he died in Cannes of a heart attack at the age of 85 on the 8th November 1998

The artist died of a heart attack at age 74 at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France on October 11, 1963 after hearing the news of the death of friend Edith Piaf that day.

Books - For the lives and the intertwining of Twentieth Century Artists.

’Cocteau’  Biography by Francis Steegmuller.  Long detailed and truly interesting.
’Memoirs of a Bastard Angel’  
Autobiography of Harold Norse and the beat generation. A full on gossip.

These two books give a coverage of not all but most of the interesting artists (my opinion) of this century. It is as if there is an elite group that grows and continues, and all know, have interacted with, influenced, loved, hated or have slept with each other.
My other books include ‘The Visual art of Jean Cocteau’ by William A Emboden, and a Borderline edition of the Graphic Art of Jean Cocteau.
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