“Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité”
“I am a lie that always speaks the truth” Jean Cocteau
Described as a “touche-à-tout sûblime” (a sublime Jack of All Trades), the writer, poet, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau has always been a controversial figure. One of the earliest ‘multimedia’ artists, in many ways the antecedent of Andy Warhol, Cocteau embraced the conversations that could be had between media (“ce croisement des arts“) and, like Warhol, also adored the fame and attention that these art forms brought him.
Every aspect of Cocteau’s work is autobiographical and self-reflective , each work referencing all the others – he was an artist who was mesmerized by himself. Both modernist and neo-classicist, Cocteau was a magpie who would happily steal from the inventions of others, and take influence from one movement to another, without being integrated into any.
Cocteau attracted extreme admiration and extreme hostility simultaneously. Suspicious, or jealous, of his fame, success and notoriety, the poet André Gide wrote him off – “he is incapable of seriousness”. The poet Paul Éluard threatened several times to murder Cocteau, and Robert Desnos repeatedly called his mother to inform her that “her son had just been run over by a car.” Much of the derision and hatred coming from the surrealists had a homophobic flavour, and André Breton took things further, describing Cocteau as “the most detestable being of his time”. Even Cocteau’s long-time friend and collaborator Pablo Picasso damned him with faint praise;
“Cocteau is a thinking machine. His drawings are pleasant; his literature is journalistic. If they made newspapers for intellectuals, Cocteau would serve up a new dish every day, an elegant about-face. If he could sell his talent, we could spend our whole lives going to the pharmacy to buy some Cocteau pills, and we still wouldn’t manage to exhaust his talent.”
But in the artistic communities of Paris between 1920 and 1960 Jean Cocteau is hard to avoid. He knew everybody and was everywhere, counting among his colleagues, friends and enemies almost every writer, thinker, socialite and artist of the time. He was unstoppable, in spite of an addiction to opium, a marked degree of solipsism, all the traits of a dilettante and an ambivalent attitude in both world wars.
Cocteau exploited every art form as a way of exploring poetry, and his work has an unmistakeable personality in any medium. His films, poems, drawings and frescoes are unique, and his writings about art, culture and society are razor sharp, hilarious, acute and unforgiving.
He is a unique artist whose life was his work, and whose embrace of a multilayered, multifaceted, multimedia approach to art opened the way to many practitioners following suit.