Our Man In Paris: Jean of all trades, master of none?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When people visit my small, dishevelled office, I distract their attention from the clutter by taking them to visit the unknown masterpiece in an office nearby. My neighbours have a large, original sketch, by one of the most prolific and versatile cultural figures of the 20th century - a man who knew and influenced everyone from Marcel Proust to Coco Chanel, from Igor Stravinsky to Edith Piaf, from Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol.

Jean Cocteau - poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, artist, photographer, set designer, film-director, opium addict, boxing manager - drew the sketch on the wall of a Parisian office during a brief visit in 1962. When the owners moved in the late Sixties, they cut out the section of the wall, put it in a frame and brought it with them.

Cocteau died 40 years ago this year. He is not best known, or valued, as a painter. The beautiful sketch in the office near to mine is probably not worth very much. Cocteau was constantly dashing off drawings and poems and giving them to friends or even passing acquaintances. France is littered with "unknown" Cocteau works.

The "known" work of the man who was once everywhere, tried everything and knew everyone is now strangely neglected. Few of his drawings or paintings can be found in museums or art galleries. His film Beauty and the Beast (1945) is regarded as an important influence on modern cinema but is rarely shown.

His poetry and plays are respected but not often seen or discussed. The word "surrealism", now mostly applied to others, was first used to describe a ballet, Parade, conceived by Cocteau in 1917, with sets by Picasso and music by Erik Satie.

Cocteau has paid the price for his versatility, or some would say his dilettantism. He is remembered not as a great artist in his own right but as a friend and defender of the great. From 25 September to 5 January, to mark the anniversary of his death, the Centre Pompidou in Paris will bring together 900 Cocteau works, from drawings to photographs to manuscripts to letters, most of which have never been displayed publicly before.

The aim is to try to reclaim Cocteau as a pivotal figure of the 20th century. The mixing of disciplines is now regarded as brilliantly innovative, rather than a symptom of amateurish dabbling. Whatever else Cocteau was, he did not lack energy. Apart from his many writings and drawings (and many years spent addicted to opium) he ran an ambulance service during the First World War, managed a young boxer and won a bet by travelling around the world in 80 days, following Jules Verne's timetable.

Much of his work is irrational or bizarre but Cocteau would have detested some of the lightly worked, bright ideas that pass as modern art today. He believed in the need for artists to "sweat" mentally, to "exert their souls". Cocteau believed in beauty, even if beauty sometimes "baffled, disgusted and horrified". One of his many maxims was: "Respect movements, flee schools."

The sketch in the office close to mine shows a fish, an ancient Greek lyre and what looks like the head of a Greek poet - all common Cocteau motifs. It is vaguely reminiscent of Picasso and Matisse, both of whom were close friends of Cocteau. So was the singer Edith Piaf. Cocteau died in 1963, a few minutes after learning of Piaf's death.

Until a couple of years ago, you could hardly see the Cocteau in the office nearby. It had become part of the furniture and was generally obscured by piles of books, files and equipment. The office has now been reorganised and the Cocteau sketch has been given a more prominent and fitting place.

High time for the same thing to happen to Cocteau himself, maybe.

French lessons on the birds and the bees

For six years we have fought a hopeless battle against the pigeons that occupy the ledges outside our flat, making love, noise and a disgusting mess. We have netted off the window ledges, poked the birds with sticks and called them names. They have simply shifted from the main window sills to a ledge beyond our reach.

We have also fought a six-year war of attrition with the concierge of our building, a manic-depressive known to the children as "Madame Nutcase". She decided - unfairly - that we were a bad lot and responsible for everything that goes wrong in the building.

The other day, she stopped my wife and demanded to know why she was "still keeping pigeons". Margaret, not the kind of person you would normally associate with pigeon fancying, denied the charge. The concierge would not be put off. "I would like to inform you, madame," she said, "that it is strictly illegal to keep pigeons in Paris."

That, at least, solves a Christmas present problem. Where in Paris can I buy my wife a flat cap and a large wicker basket?

Given a dressing down

I was told off recently by a colleague for suggesting that sisterhood - solidarity between professional women - was rare in France. However, Canard Enchainé, the satirical weekly, reported a recent exchange between Roselyne Bachelot (the Environment Minister) and Jean-Pierre Raffarin (the Prime Minister). The subject was their colleague Nicole Fontaine (the Industry Minister and former president of the European Parliament).

Mme Bachelot: "What does Nicole Fontaine do with her outdated suits and worn-out dresses?"

M. Raffarin: "I don't know."

Mme Bachelot: "She wears them."

Comments