Jean Cocteau: The Elusive Dandy of Modern Art

By Béa Aaronson

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.” (Jean Cocteau from Le rappel à l’ordre 1926.)
Jean Cocteau
Wed, Jun 3, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
Casa Verde annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio
130 pesos per person
121 1026, 152 3730

French movie director and scenarist, novelist, playwright, artist, set designer, actor, Jean Cocteau was probably the most multi-talented artist of the 20th century. But he was first and foremost a poet. It is poetry that suffused all of his esthetic creative activities. Poetry was the basis of all his art, a religion without hope. He began writing at 10 and was already published at 16. As W.H. Auden so rightly said, “To enclose the collected works of Cocteau, one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse!”

Poetry does not live only in words; it breathes in music, in silence, in lines, colors, images. Each image brings forth a moment of identity. The image is at the core of our plural identity. That is why it is so difficult to grasp Jean Cocteau’s artistic life. Some critics called him “a slippery character.” This is so unfair. Cocteau is a pluri-disciplinary creator. I much prefer French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand’s description: “Cocteau l’insaisissable,” the elusive Cocteau, which seems to me the mot juste.

His work reflects the influence of surrealism, psychoanalysis, cubism, and the Catholic religion, all bathing in a creative waft of opium. Always on the avant-garde, promoting new styles and fashions, Cocteau contributed a lot to the shaping of the 20th century zeitgeist.

Born in 1885 into a wealthy, politically prominent family, yes, he lived the life of a dandy, a jet society elegant butterfly. His numerous friends included Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf (with whom he shared the day of his funeral in 1963), Maria Félix, Marlene Dietrich, Erik Satie, Marcel Proust, Serge Diaghilev, and Pablo Picasso, to name a few. Incidentally, Cocteau fell under the spell of Picasso, who was not very kind to him. The egocentric Spaniard used to say that Cocteau was the “tail of his comet”!

But Cocteau’s social life should not belittle the quality and the depth of his vision. Everything he touched was nurtured by the need, the urge to understand the human voice, to decipher the algebra of the human condition. And this is what I want to share with you, the magic touch of Jean Cocteau the proteiform artist. I shall introduce you to his poetry, his plays, his drawings, frescoes, and ceramics, and of course to his amazing movies. Cinema was for him the most complete form of art, “metaphysics in action,” as he called it. Come and join me in meeting Jean Cocteau, an essential catalyst force in 20th century art.


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