A Dandy for Our Times

Jean Cocteau dined, fought, or collaborated with anyone who was anyone in avant-garde Paris. But his own art was ignored, dismissed as the work of a frivolous queen. A new retrospective hopes to change that

Jean Cocteau: A portrait of the artist / Photograph by Herbert List/Magnum Photos

“To enclose the collected works of Cocteau,” W. H. Auden said, “one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse.” Indeed, for its summer-long show of items by Cocteau – a few hundred drawings and designs, manuscripts and printed books, myriad photographs and hand-made objects, letters, and other scraps of memorabilia, a tiny harvest from a prolific creative career spanning six decades – the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (mmfa) needed 1,500 square metres of gallery space, very nearly a warehouse. A slightly larger version of Jean Cocteau. Enfant Terrible, as this exhibition is called, occupied no less than 2,000 square metres at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where it premiered last year, under the name Jean Cocteau, sur le fil du siècle. While this is a very large show, it is hardly bigger than its ambitions: to give us a Cocteau for our times, to rescue the man from a reputation confected largely by fans and foes, and to argue for the enduring importance of his work in graphic and photographic media, from around 1905, when he surfaced, a dazzling teenager in bohemian Paris, until his death in 1963.

Cocteau, writes the mmfa’s director, Guy Cogeval, in the book accompanying the show on its transatlantic tour, “was akin to the rhapsodists of antiquity, poets whose genius for improvisation expressed itself in assembling – literally sewing together – scattered fragments from widely differing traditions. . . . In North American eyes Cocteau stands at the centre of the rediscovery of those artists who in the twentieth century smashed the boundaries separating the arts.”

For anyone fascinated by the tumultuous story of Modern art, this show is a welcome arrival. Cocteau’s career, as the Pompidou show’s subtitle suggests, runs like a thread (the French word is fil) through the brilliant quilt of Parisian avant-gardism in the visual arts, theatre, poetry, and music, from its stunning debut between 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War, down to the 1960s, when the Modern idea everywhere began its long, slow unravelling. Cocteau knew everybody. He was photographed by Man Ray and Irving Penn, and sketched by Dufy, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Francis Picabia. He wrote a libretto for Stravinsky, joined forces with Erik Satie and Picasso to produce “Parade” (1917), the most notorious multimedia experiment of the Paris avant-garde, and, briefly, managed the career of bantamweight boxing champ Panama Al Brown.

The show asks us to ignore the attacks on Cocteau as a frivolous queen, launched by André Breton and the Surrealists in the early 1920s, and to cherish the art of a man who was dismissed in his own time as a dilettante and a dabbler – to see Cocteau not merely as an artist who dined or fought with everybody in Paris during the avant-garde experiment, but as a key creator of Modern sensibility.

But, forty years after his death, is Cocteau an artist whose time for second coming has arrived?

Given the current state of mass culture – shallow, coarse, rushed, mechanical, reproductive – we should be ready for something along the lines of Cocteau’s decadence. One would think the intellectual whimsy of his cinema, the lazybones nonchalance of his drawings and snapshots, the camp intensity he brought to his role as Modernity’s queer Peter Pan – ever the fabulously scattered boy – would have considerable appeal these days.

But the dishonesty of popular culture at the turn of the twenty-first century has left us with little interest in the likes of Cocteau. Terrorism, ideological extremism, the spread of mysterious diseases, and the agonizing, seemingly intractable plight of millions of people outside the (until recently) calm North Atlantic world have made us serious about everything, including, or especially, our pleasures. The exquisite dandy, a homosexual type adopted, and perfected, by Cocteau in Belle-Époque Paris, turned into an object of suspicion after the events at Stonewall galvanized the gay-rights movement; it has since become rare. Nobody these days – except for the transsexual and the drag queen, those inextinguishable figures of the perverse sublime – seems to have the patience and discipline necessary for such supreme vanity. Roleplaying did not disappear in the 1960s, of course. But, at least among artists and writers and public philosophers, the role of the dandy went into steep decline, along with the cult of style that had enjoyed a creative vogue from the time of Baudelaire, through Cocteau, down to Andy Warhol.

Cocteau was born into a wealthy family near Paris in 1889, and educated in private schools before drifting into avant-garde circles in Paris shortly after the turn of the century. He learned the Greek myths at home and school, picked up his aesthetic in the opulent, over-stuffed mansion of his parents, and learned a lot simply by being a wide-eyed lad in the Paris of the grandes cocottes. He got to know the classic French theatre while hanging out in his teenaged years with the flamboyant actor Edouard de Max at the Comédie-Française. He learned about camp extravagance from de Max, and from the drag shows and music halls of Montmartre. He learned about everything up-to-date by moving in the circle of the poet and critic Apollinaire, whom he adored above all other men, with the exception of Picasso. (Picasso did not return the compliment.)

“Cocteau’s work is strewn with references,” writes François Nemer in the catalogue of this show. “These references are not taken from the further fringes of Western culture, but from its main, classical and academic trunk, the one that underpins the public education system and provides illustrated dictionaries with their imagery. They suggest not so much the elitist arrogance of a son of the cultivated bourgeoisie as the rather confined atmosphere and gentle nostalgia of a floor littered with open books, holiday souvenirs, photographs of friends and family and postcards in a sick child’s bedroom.”

At least he knew something. Intelligent young North Americans nowadays have very little general culture, or much easy acquaintance with history, art, mythology, architecture – things that, only a few decades ago, were acquired as a matter of course by anybody who wanted an intellectual life. Contemporary aesthetic culture takes little pleasure in Cocteau’s brand of light, broad learning. In due course, one suspects, generalists like him will probably disappear altogether, and we will be poorer for that. Even now, our taste for highly specialized learning and our suspicion of dilettantes disincline us to take anyone seriously who does it all. And Cocteau, indeed, did it all: wrote and directed plays, made his great film Le Sang d’un poète in 1930, decorated a chapel, designed a 20-centime French stamp. The diversity of his art-making has always been among the most grievous offences held against him by critics. (Another was letting himself be turned into a celebrity in the 1950s – but why not? Years of gazing at himself in the mirror had taught him how good he looked to the camera, and he did love to talk.)

Even if we view Cocteau’s superficiality as a precocious form of Postmodernism, or as a forgivable vice, as this show asks us to do, should we be quite so ready to write off his behaviour during the Occupation as a peccadillo? I bring up this matter because the exhibition does. Over the last decade or so, writers in Europe and America have made a blood sport out of exposing the suspicious, or worse, wartime doings of respected artists and intellectuals. Martin Heidegger, Paul de Man, even Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas – all of them have been revealed to have nasty secrets in their steamer trunks. Cocteau was no Nazi, as Heidegger was. He mostly just went along. His one conspicuous act of collaboration, memorialized by this show in photos and text, was the lavish public welcome he extended, in 1942, to the German sculptor Arno Breker, court artist to the Nazi regime in Berlin, on the occasion of a Breker show in Paris.

The show’s curators deal with the Breker affair as a lapse in judgment. But it was more plausibly a symptom of the deeper, long-lasting malaise in Cocteau’s life and work. His art, from start to finish, was altogether too fashionable and au courant, too dreamy and escapist and respectful of power. He bled at the least social slight, and he never forgot a wound, but he seems not to have been capable of mature doubt, about himself or anyone else. The show’s curator, Dominique Païni, excuses the artist by claiming that “deep down, Cocteau did not believe in anything.” But, no, it was Picasso who really did not believe in anything. Cocteau believed, with the blind passion of a convert, in the cultic power of art and artificiality, the magic power of evasion. While he cannot be blamed for general French complicity with the Nazis, neither can he be completely excused. He was, after all, a cultural icon throughout his life. He was no less responsible for the ways he used his highly public image because, as Païni writes, “he could not bear the idea of not being loved.”

If, these days, museums do not collect his drawings and paintings, nobody reads his poetry, and his plays are staged only occasionally, Cocteau’s cinema has long been important to experimental filmmakers in America, and interesting to everyone who enjoys films made before yesterday. (In a catalogue essay, Yann Beauvais makes a good argument for the genuinely innovative touch in Cocteau’s cinematic evocations of sexuality, childhood, and transformation.) But, outside the circles of film buffs and the audiences of Philip Glass, whom Cocteau has inspired more than once, how many people today see La Belle et la bête or Orphée when these works cycle through the local university screening room? Such over-civilized movies have never suited the crude temper of any century. Like the films of Joseph Cornell and James Broughton, they seem to need the affectionate atmosphere of the film club to live and persist.

The clubs are not, by the way, bad places for art to be. As long as the films of Cocteau are watched by bright students and young artists, and talked about and argued over, they will remain fresh and vital. I do not believe, however, that the drawings and photographs and other mementoes in the mmfa exhibition will be talked about beyond the show’s close, at the end of August. When he put pencil or pen to paper, Cocteau drew with lazy refinement, and with hardly a trace of the imaginative vigour and breadth of a Matisse or Picasso or Modigliani. And the subjects of his photographs – the rich and the famous in his smart set, the beautiful boys and men he loved – may interest us, because of their role in a drama of modern times; but not the pictures themselves. It is for another generation to enjoy, without a skeptical smile, the visual imagination of the man who, late in life, wrote this little manifesto of evasion: “Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort, the trifling feeling of escape experienced at a masked ball. He distances himself from that which he feels and sees. He invents. He transfigures. He mythifies. He creates. He fancies himself an artist.”

John Bentley Mays