Jean Cocteau: Beauty or beast?

Jean Cocteau is remembered for his experimental films and exquisite drawings. So why does a dark cloud hang over his reputation, asks Louise Gray. And what is the truth about his support for fascist artists in wartime France?
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The Independent Online

For Jean Cocteau, the mirror was an entrance to another world. Fittingly, considering Cocteau's lifetime of restless activity, this magical, metaphorical doorway is an image that crops up time and again in his works. The mirror figures literally in films such as La Belle et la Bête, Le Sang d'un Poète and Le Testament d'Orphée; it is understood as a precondition of Cocteau's endless self-portraits; and, translated into a different kind of narcissism, it is there in writings such as Les enfants terribles and the relentless auto-focus of his Opium journals, written during his periods of detoxication. In short, Jean Cocteau was an artist who was mesmerised by himself.

So it is fitting that the entrance to the massive 900-piece Cocteau exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, organised to mark the 40th anniversary of his death, employs this central image of the mirror from its very beginning. In fact, the first thing you see as you enter the labyrinth constructed for the show is a projection from 1930's Le Sang d'un Poète: the poet, played by Enrique Rivero, hesitates before a large mirror. A living statue - in real life, the surrealist muse and photographer, Lee Miller - urges him to enter it: "Try, always try," she tells him. The poet crashes through its glassy, aqueous surface, literally, a leap into the deep end.

But how mesmerised is the rest of the world with Cocteau? While the Pompidou Centre points out the enormous success of the show since it opened in September - not so much bums on seats, as bodies through mirrors (or something dangerously close: the dimly lit maze is littered with full-length mirrors and the show resounds to the muffled thud of bodies encountering unyielding surfaces) - Cocteau retains, even in death, the power to divide. Of the French daily broadsheets, Le Monde approved it, Le Figaro praised its variety and Libération loathed it. "Here we go again," sighed the leftist daily, in a devastating assessment that left few areas of the artist's life and work unscorched: the show is as trivial as Cocteau, "le touche-à-tout sublime", himself. In other words, it touches everything, and nothing.

Nevertheless, the Paris show chose its subtitle - Sur le fil du siècle, "the thread of a century" - well. Cocteau is the thread whose life and work weaves through the flowering of art in 20th-century France. Born in 1889 to an upper-middle-class family (his lawyer father committed suicide when Jean was 10), Cocteau - an indifferent pupil whose main achievement during those years seems to have been his meeting with Dargelos, the brawny, schoolboy hunk who would serve as the template for many of his future erotic images - gained early attention as a teenage poet. He was charming and precocious. He was presented to Empress Eugénie, the widow of Napoleon III, and secured the lifelong patronage of the formidable de Noailles family. Cocteau saw Sarah Bernhardt on stage and visited Marcel Proust in his cork-lined study where, he recalled, "dust covered the furniture like grey fur"; he knew the Dadaists, fought with the Surrealists and worked with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. He was the only non-musician in les Six, a group of composers that included Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger, who inspired by Satie, were dedicated to the renaissance of French music. He was the first French critic to champion Modernist writer Gertrude Stein and among the first to recognise the literary talents of Jean Genet, testifying in 1942 that the young thief "was the greatest writer in France". Cocteau was commemorated by artists as diverse as Modigliani, Picasso, Romaine Brooks and Lipschitz. Warhol developed the vision of Cocteau as icon in a series of posthumous screenprints. When, in 1955, Cocteau was elected to the Académie française, the hilt of his ceremonial sword was studded with a large emerald, the gift of Coco Chanel; and he died, in 1963, a few hours after Edith Piaf. It's a breathless list for the sublime touch-all: in Cocteau's life an entire cultural history is embraced.

Yet even now, Cocteau is a problematic figure. He was an artist - a high-functioning dilettante, counter his critics - whose interests were wider than the norm. His neo-classical style marked Cocteau out as an anti-Modernist from the start. He was gay, and, ipso facto, marginalised from the official avant-garde, who, whatever their revolutionary aesthetic proclivities, could, in matters of sexual mores, be surprisingly reactionary. And, more pertinently, Cocteau was apolitical at a point in French history - he sat out the German occupation in Paris - at which any sense of humanity demanded an unequivocal stance.

Visitors to Sur le fil du siècle may be forgiven if they detect a whiff of the defensive about the show. The onslaught of so many self-portraits, so many objects, so many films whirring away, has the subtlety of an argument prosecuted by a sledgehammer. (Even when the curators go the risqué route - there is one section, coloured a coy red, where drawings depicting inventive ambisexual couplings are housed - you expect them to giggle at their own naughtiness.) And yet the Pompidou, very much the embodiment of state-sanctioned contemporary art in France, is determined that the show should begin a re-evaluation of Cocteau's work.

In this they may be helped by a recent tendency among artists to work more widely than previous generations. Cocteau was, claims artist and curator Marc Camille Chaimowicz, in many ways the antecedent of Warhol. "Cocteau recognised the multiplicity of conversations that could be had between various media," he says, drawing attention to the collaborative nature of much of Cocteau's work. It is this tranversalisme that informed "Jean Cocteau", Chaimowicz's recent group show in Norwich, which featured work from 12 artists, including Cerith Wyn Evans, Enrico David, Warhol and Tom of Finland.

It's by the inclusion of this last artist that Chaimowicz really throws down the gauntlet, for it raises questions about the most controversial aspect of Cocteau's work, namely the intersection between desire and power. Best known for his pencil drawings of pneumatically endowed men in improbably optimistic poses, it can be argued that Tom of Finland's sadomasochist illustrations are an erotic - and necessarily homosexual - offshoot of the hyper-masculine in figurative art. For all his kitsch, there is never any doubt that these are figures, which, even in their fantastical elements, represent a subversion of male bonding. The difficult arises when, as in totalitarian art, the representation of the body is deployed to serve a different vision.

If Cocteau made one mistake in his life, it was a monumental one. In 1942, on the front page of the journal, Comoedia, he published his salute to Arno Breker. Comparisons to Michelangelo were invoked. Breker, who specialised in the muscled supermen so well-suited to the Nazi vision of its manhood, was Hitler's chosen sculptor: he was to granite what Leni Riefenstahl was to celluloid. The occasion was Breker's exhibition at the Paris Orangerie, and even now, the hyperbolic makes uneasy reading. (Cocteau's comrades were horrified: "Freud, Kafka, Chaplin are forbidden by the same people who honour Breker," the poet Paul Eluard wrote to Cocteau. "We used to see you among the forbidden. How wrong you were to expose yourself among the censors.")

What are we to make of Cocteau's blatant support for a fascist artist? Even after nearly 60 years, it provides scant comfort to recognise that life under enemy occupation is more complicated than history would like it to be. Was it to buy protection? Very much a public figure by the 1940s, Cocteau was denounced regularly in the collaborationist press as a homosexual and a communist (the latter untrue). Performances of his plays, Les parents terribles and La machine à ecrire, provoked right-wing riots and were closed by the German police. Moreover, his lover and leading man, Jean Marais, was definitely in the Resistance, and so in constant danger. And he knew enough to intervene with his friends in high places when his friend Max Jacob was taken to Drancy, the transit camp outside Paris that served as the first stop for Auschwitz. Cocteau failed; Jacob died.

Italian artist Enrico David, who contributed to Chaimowicz's Norwich show, suggests Cocteau may have been seduced, like many other artists, by the sentimental rootedness that fascism seemed to offer. "Is it attractive because of some fundamental sense of unbelonging?" he asks. Cocteau's self-portraits - some with the face erased or covered in a single, elegant hand, bear witness to this: "They are," David argues, "an endless way of questioning his own identity." Cocteau was no fascist, but he had certainly been naive.

There is one aspect of Cocteau's work in which the Pompidou has no need to tread carefully. As the directors of the nouvelle vague, Godard, Rivette and Truffaut among them, had been quick to recognise, his greatest legacy was in his cinematic inventiveness. In one of the most promising parts of the show, Alice Anderson's video installation Seance presents a nightmarish, multilayered narrative that incorporates Cocteau's play, La voix humaine.

A year after the Liberation, Cocteau began work on La Belle et la Bête. On the surface, it was a fairy story about love and transformation, but, in 1945, it had additional layers. It referred to a France that had laboured under an evil spell. The filming was fraught: both Cocteau and Marais, who had to endure whole days in full furry make-up, suffered a plague of boils. ("I know what occupation means," Cocteau wrote in his journal. "I am occupied by microbes.") Of all his films, it is this one that endures: La Belle et la Bête is magical in the full, uneasy sense of the word. But who is Beauty? Or, for that matter, the Beast?

'Jean Cocteau, Sur le fil du siècle': Pompidou Centre, Paris (00 33 1 44 78 12 33), to 5 Jan