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Jean Cocteau Photo

Jean Cocteau

French Poet, Novelist, Painter, Graphic Artist, Playwright and Filmmaker

Born: July 5, 1889 - Maisons-Laffitte, France
Died: October 11, 1963 - Milly-la-Forêt, France
"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth."
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Jean Cocteau Signature
"An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture."
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Jean Cocteau Signature
"We must believe in luck. How else can we explain the success of those we don't like?"
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Jean Cocteau Signature
"Mirrors should think longer before they reflect."
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Jean Cocteau Signature
"There's no such thing as love; only proof of love."
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Jean Cocteau Signature
"Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time."
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Jean Cocteau Signature

Summary of Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau worked across almost every artistic discipline, exploring writing, painting and drawing, theatre and film, linking disparate forms of art making in explorations of myth, contemporary life, dream and sexual identity. Cocteau began as a poet but aspired toward the creation of worlds into which an audience could be immersed. He drew from many influences, filtering the world around him through his personal sensibility and life experiences. Cocteau, though controversial among his peers due to his eagerness to please, valued collaboration and his receptivity to the ideas of others is evident throughout his body of work, which broke new ground in creating links between different styles, media and periods.


  • Cocteau aspired to create "total works of art," extending Richard Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, then more familiar in theory than in practice, combining words, images and movements in multiple dimensions. This led him to direct ballet and film, illustrate his own books and decorate interiors, all of which provided the possibility of immersing the audience in his creations. This attitude to art making, which involved many collaborators, set the tone for the avant-garde later in the century.
  • Jean Cocteau's work is often personal, mapping his own perspective onto the universal through reimagining myth in contemporary life, resulting in novel perspectives on familiar situations. Cocteau avoided the overtly political, favoring the escape from life offered through explorations of dream and the unconscious.
  • Cocteau's work is divisive due to his difficulty fitting into established categories. He was unpopular, in his lifetime, due both to homophobia and to his obvious desperation for attention, but his habit of working across many media meant critics discredited him as failing to master any single discipline while fans praised his ability to work beyond arbitrary limitations.
  • Cocteau was deeply depressed for much of his adult life and used art making, along with opium, as a means of coping with this. His work is indicative of his struggles, regularly exploring the possibility that creativity itself is inseparable from despair.
  • Jean Cocteau's work is regularly described as 'surreal,' though he was never affiliated with the Surrealist group. Cocteau, like the Surrealists, was interested in exploring dreams and the unconscious and his mythologization of everyday life is similar to that of key figures such as Louis Aragon and Luis Buñuel, with whom he was on friendly terms. André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist group, however, viewed Cocteau's Romantic aesthetic as conservative and as anathema to the Surrealist creed of pure automatism and this, exacerbated by personal disagreements and Breton's homophobia, meant that Cocteau and the Surrealist group denied all links, despite their artistic similarities.

Biography of Jean Cocteau

Christian Bérard's portrait of Cocteau (1928)

Cocteau was a celebrity in his time and his disastrous romantic liaisons were widely discussed (one spurned lover shot himself, one died under the Gestapo, another became a monk). His reputation at times preceded him, even causing him to lament "my name has overtaken my work."

Important Art by Jean Cocteau

Progression of Art
Parade (1917)


This image shows two of the costumes from Parade in front of the set background, both costumes designed by Pablo Picasso under Jean Cocteau's direction. The ballet followed three groups of circus performers attempting to lure an audience to a performance. These costumes, made from cardboard, were abstract and brightly colored; the figure on the left is a French businessman, identified through his pipe, while the figure on the right is an American businessman, with a red shirt, top hat and megaphone, with yellow and orange grids representing skyscrapers. The set resembles a child's drawing, with simple shapes suggesting fairground architecture. The score included sound effects, such as typewriters and sirens, interspersed with orchestral music.

Cocteau conceived of the ballet, which he pushed for the Ballets Russes to perform, as a work in which everyday life would, for the first time, be danced; he saw performance as offering an opportunity to bring literature, music, dance, sculpture and painting together into an all-encompassing artwork, creating an immersive world. Cocteau conceived of the scenario and wrote the libretto, selected Erik Satie as composer and worked with him - and sometimes against him - on the inclusion of sound within the music and enlisted Pablo Picasso to work on sets and costumes. Parade can be seen as a response to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's call for the circus to invade the theatre, combining the popular entertainment of the dance hall with the classical language of ballet.


Illustration from The White Book

This drawing shows two torsos joined at the belly button, with facial profiles detached and turned, such that they do not flow from the bodies, but are linked by a line extending between the eye of the face in the lower left corner and that in the upper right. The image is from the 1930 edition of The White Book, a combination of autobiography and fiction exploring homosexuality which featured seventeen drawings accompanying the text. The text traces the erotic awakening of a young boy, while the images center upon anonymous male bodies. The narrator cannot be clearly linked to any of the figures, who are notably fragmentary, often rendered without hands or feet and with grey patches obscuring their genitalia, alongside a text in which Cocteau does not refer to the penis by name, instead using euphemisms ranging from "an enigma" to "that little underwater plant."

The book's central image shows the outline of two men, in similar postures, pressing their bodies on alternate sides of a mirror. The illustrations before and after this center similarly correspond, such that the book itself foregrounds doubling; the above illustration, also, with its doubled torso and multiple faces, suggests sexual eroticism springs, in part, from the allure of the mirror. The images are colored with soft pink, pale blue, dark grey and beige, though the colors do not correspond with reality, with some bodies left uncolored while others are blue or pink.

The White Book borrows, for its title, a phrase used to designate a set of official documents addressing a problem, as homosexuality was undeniably seen at this time; the word 'white,' however, has connotations of innocence, suggesting that the book operates essentially as a defense, as is supported by Cocteau's argument, in the text, that his "misfortunes stem from a society that condemns the rare as a crime and forces us to reform our inclinations." Cocteau's simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the text's authorship is in keeping with the tone adopted by the book, which celebrates homosexuality whilst accepting the inability to speak of it openly, as hinted at by the anonymity of most partners mentioned in the text and by a drawing of two men blindfolded. The centrality of the mirror image links The White Book with Cocteau's broader oeuvre, in which he frequently deployed mirrors to signify passage into the unknown. The colors used for the illustrations, in 1930, are clearly influenced by Cocteau's friend Marie Laurencin, known for working in a similar palette, while the fluid lines and abstraction of the figures show Picasso's influence. Cocteau revised the illustrations as his sexuality shifted; while the bodies drawn in 1930 are fragile and graceful, those accompanying the 1947 edition celebrate strength and virility, with far more explicit depictions of sexual acts.


Les Enfants Terribles

Les Enfants Terribles, published in 1929, centers upon siblings, Paul and Elizabeth, who isolate themselves as teenagers, playing a 'game' with one another that governs, disrupts and ultimately ends their lives. The central characters are based on Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint, twins with whom Cocteau was close, while the setting borrows from Cocteau's own living space, a room filled with photographs. It is easy, also, to read Cocteau's own way of being into that of the siblings, who are more imbedded in dream than reality, with confusion over the boundaries of the imagination and difficulty making sense of adulthood. Les Enfants Terribles introduces two other figures, Dargelos and Agathe, to this relationship, aggravating it with sexual competition. This image, a line drawing that shows two figures composed of one green line, meeting at lips, forehead and chest, was made for the cover of the 1963 reprinting.

Cocteau wrote Les Enfants Terribles in only seventeen days and expected that only a few people would read the book; instead, it was a popular and critical triumph. Cocteau's success was quickly complicated, however, by the death of Jeanne Bourgoint later in 1929, for which many blamed Cocteau, feeling that the suicide was designed after that of the book, despite reports that the siblings had not recognized themselves. Nonetheless, Cocteau did not distance himself from Les Enfants Terribles, as indicated by the cover he drew for the 1963 edition, which emphasizes the closeness of the book's central characters, who lack boundaries such that many critics mistakenly believed the novel to involve sexual, alongside emotional, incest.


Still from Blood of a Poet

This still from Blood of a Poet shows blood streaming from the head of the film's Poet, played by Enrique Rivero, who has just shot himself, in the penultimate scene from which the film takes its name. He wears a crown of leaves and draped scarves; to his left is a shadow appearing as an abstract face, traced on the wall behind. Cocteau's film is dreamlike, beginning with a man discovering a speaking mouth in the palm of his hand, which he slides over his body, moving downward from his face. He awakens to find a statue, played by the photographer Lee Miller, who encourages him to dive through a mirror which leads to a corridor where he looks through keyholes, seeing different worlds in each room.

Cocteau saw filmmaking as akin to drawing or writing on a grander scale, allowing the creation of worlds. He took full advantage of the possibilities of film to imitate the feeling of a dream, using slow and reverse motion along with positioning cameras above the sets in order to create unusual perspectives. Cocteau deliberately exhausted his performers so that they would appear, with tired movements, like sleepwalkers. This was heightened by the frequent use of black backdrops, creating a sense that the film's imagery and characters were suspended in space. Blood of a Poet was, alongside the work of René Clair, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, among the first films constructed as artworks, making full use of the medium to subvert both space and narrative progression.


Still from The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine is a rewriting of Sophocle's Oedipus Rex, which follows the titular figure as he becomes King of Thebes through, unbeknownst to him, killing his father and sleeping with his mother; upon discovering what he has done, he gouges out his eyes. Cocteau combined the classical story with conventions from popular theatre in order make it contemporary. Cocteau used familiar, casual language; Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, for example, calls the High Priest Tiresias 'Zizi' and comments on the attractiveness of a guard, asking Zizi to "feel his biceps." Once again, Cocteau's interest in collaboration served the play; Coco Chanel designed the costumes, which combined classical simplicity with modern materials and shapes, while Christian Berard designed the sets, which had a geometry ideal for combining the tragic story with the playful, prosaic language.

Cocteau's interpretation of the Oedipus mix indicates the way in which he used his own life to give depth to mythology and to shape his own interpretations. The play, written at the denouement of his love affairs with both Jean Desbordes and Natalie Paley, is a contemplation of childhood's role in love's failures and on personal agency. Cocteau portrays Oedipus as innocent, condemned by an oracle and tricked by the gods, bearing no responsibility for his actions toward his parents. He is typically read as an autobiographical figure, reflecting Cocteau's guilt around his silence about his father's death and the weight of his mother's love; like Oedipus, Cocteau viewed himself as special, or chosen by the gods, only to struggle with the question of whether it was creative success or personal misery that made him special or if, perhaps, the two were inextricably linked.


Still from Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast, based on a fairytale written two centuries earlier, follows a young girl, Belle, who is trapped in a castle by a Beast with whom she eventually falls in love, discovering finally that the Beast is a transformed Prince. Jean Marais plays both the Beast/Prince while Belle is played by Josette Day. The film begins with a plea to the audience, by Cocteau himself, to suspend adult belief, watching the film as a child might; the opening credits, which are presented on a chalkboard and erased by Cocteau as he speaks, emphasize the audience's immersion in the world of the film. There is little dialogue in Beauty and the Beast, but the opulent details create a fantastical environment; candelabras are held by human arms which reach up from a table covered in jewels and fruit, while stone caryatids embedded in the architecture have moving eyes and breathe smoke. Belle and the Beast are, however, notably real, with pronounced chemistry between the two actors, aiding the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Jean Cocteau drew upon the illustrations of Gustave Doré in his representation of the Beast's castle, while Jan Vermeer's paintings act as a reference point for scenes, at the beginning of the film, set in a light-filled farmhouse. Cocteau places a different emphasis on the end of the story than is common in other interpretations, shooting Jean Marais as the Prince in a saccharine style, intended to undercut his conventional good looks, such that the disappointment of a fairytale ending, in which the heroine leaves romantic drama for marriage and children, is brought to the fore. Beauty and the Beast has been subject to a range of interpretations, with some critics arguing it offers a commentary on France during World War II, presenting occupation as an evil yet seductive spell, while others see it as a meditation on the conflict between creativity and contentment. Cocteau himself saw Beauty and the Beast as exploring the ways in which the unconscious shapes the pursuit of a particular type of man repeatedly and as an exposure of fairytale ideals, including conventional good looks and marriage, as naïve. Cocteau's work draws its ongoing impact in part through the degree to which it remains ambiguous, allowing for a wide range of intended and unintended readings.


Cocteau's fresco decoration of Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer

Cocteau's work on the Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer consists of a group of five frescoes, covering the building's interior, along with external decoration of the doors and the design of the altar and candelabras. This fresco, at the altar, depicts a scene from the Gospel of Mark, in which Christ anoints Saint Peter as Patron Saint of Fishermen. Cocteau renders the scene with fluid lines; the figures are shown with simple garments and shifting proportions that serve to emphasize Christ's divinity. The architectural features of the chapel are highlighted with playful geometric patterns tracing their edges. The frescoes, drawn in charcoal, are colored with subtle pinks, whites and blues.

Cocteau discovered, in 1956, that this Romanesque chapel, where fishermen preciously kept nets, had recently been restored and pushed for permission to paint it, wishing for a distraction from depression and loneliness. Cocteau saw the chapel as a site for escaping reality; he was not religious but was interested in all belief systems, including Christianity, for the ways in which they blended the mythical with the everyday. The separation of the space from the outside world is emphasized by the soft colors, which create a restful mood, while the depiction of Saint Peter and the primacy of the sea, behind the altar, serves to elevate the daily activities of the fishermen into a celestial realm. The Chapelle Saint-Pierre extends Cocteau's existing drawing practice into three-dimensions, with the same fluid lines and simple figures that characterize his illustration work appearing on an immersive scale.

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jean Cocteau
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Jean Genet
    Jean Genet
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    Marcel Proust
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    Raymond Radiguet
  • No image available
    Jean Marais
  • No image available
    Edith Piaf
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair

"Jean Cocteau Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anna Blair
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First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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