How Jean Cocteau influenced the bohemian art movement in Paris

During the golden years of Paris, when the city was the universal mecca for culture generally and Modernism in particular, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was the man who knew everyone and could do almost anything. Nowadays, he’s probably best remembered by cinema buffs for such artful films as “The Blood of a Poet” (1930), “Beauty and the Beast” (1946) and “Orpheus” (1950), but Cocteau began his creative life as a poet and went on to write novels, critical essays, a scenario for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, memoirs and stage plays. He also dabbled in visual art.

Jean Cocteau, “Jeune Fille de Milly,” 1951, $75,276, Sept. 23, 2010.

The bohemian life was Cocteau’s natural milieu. In 1908, his mother arranged for his poetry to be read in a public performance by a prominent actor. The influential audience applauded the young poet as the new Rimbaud and a year later his first book of poems, “La Lampe D’ Aladia,” was published. The status quo salons of Paris beckoned him in but his interests steered him towards the avant-garde, and he soon met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the cubist painter Picasso and many others.

Cocteau recalled in one of his many autobiographies the day in 1909 when he was walking along the Place de la Concorde with Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes, along with the Ballet’s principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. The young poet was fishing for praise, or at least recognition, from these important figures in the arts. Finally, Diaghilev “stopped, adjusted his monocle and said, ‘Etonnez, moi’ [Astonish me]. The idea of surprising anyone had not occurred to me before”.

Diaghilev’s sudden outburst may have become Jean Cocteau’s mantra for his enormous oeuvre that followed. In 1917 he wrote the narrative for the ballet “Parade” with music by the avant-garde composer Eric Satie and set design by Picasso. It stunned the opening night audience as being too daring. Not deterred, he formed a group of musicians known as Le Six.

Although he played no instruments, the group set his poems to music and he became their spokesperson and publicist. Their goal was to depart from established methods in music by simplifying the structure of their compositions, stripping the exhausting refinements and grandiose pretensions. The non-academic approach to composing music was down-to-earth and within the reach of everyday people. Its success captured the next generation of modern composers, including the American songwriter Aaron Copeland, who created his signature American sound while living in Paris.

By the end of World War I, many artists congregated in a rebellious movement known as Dada. Founded in a cabaret in Zurich, and immediately embraced by intellectuals in Paris, Dada was a semi-funny, semi-serious and altogether absurd expression of rebellion in art, photography, music, dance and cinema. Its lasting legacy was in visual art, which gave way to Surrealism and that movement’s celebrated painter, Salvador Dali. Although Cocteau embraced the spirit of Dada, he soon grew tired of its excess and excitement.

Cocteau’s poetry was a major component in all of his artistic endeavors. Much of his visual art included words and phrases. Many of his sketched self-portraits display commentary, such as “Life is the first stage of death.” In perfect harmony, Cocteau illustrated his own books, wrote plays, composed librettos including Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” and took photographs with a Surrealistic bend. In 1930 he made his first film: “The Blood of a Poet.”

Much of his work was steeped in classical mythology. His homage to the gods and goddesses of the ancient world were thematic in his ceramic and terra cotta plates. And the simple, line-drawing style used in all his painting was adapted directly from his friend Picasso who made his reputation from the simple yet profound technique. A recent auction in Marseille featured many fine examples of Cocteau’s ceramics. An 11-inch terra cotta plate honors Greek and Roman mythology with Mercury/Hermes, created in 1958 in an edition of 30. An image of the winged god in profile sold for $2,683. (All prices realized include buyer’s premium.) At the same sale, another plate, Orphee a la Lyre, had a return of $2,400.

A prolific and multidisciplinary artist, Cocteau was a champion of Modernism in all its forms although his greatest strength was in his poetry and film work. Intertwining sculpture, painting and drawing, Cocteau’s muse was as immortal as Byron’s soul. He left behind an enormous and surprisingly affordable body of work.

His prints and posters were found at auction in the last year for under $1,500. Watercolors and other works on paper fetched an average around $3,000. His oil paintings, not as available as his other work, are pricier; much more worked, detailed and sized larger, the relatively few painting offerings are priced for the avid Cocteau collector.

In September 2010, a buyer paid $75,276 at Bonham’s (London) for Cocteau’s 1951 painting “Jeune Fille de Milly.” The 32- by 26-inch bold portrait with ornamental eyes is perhaps his most ambitious work on canvas and was painted at his home in Milly-la-Foret were he lived with actor Jean Marais, who was featured in many of his films. Cocteau painted until his death in 1963.

Footnote: Cocteau moved to a house Milly-la-Forêt in 1947, buying it with Jean Marais. It was here that he wrote, painted and sculpted until his death in 1963. He is buried in the Chapelle Saint-Blaise, which he had decorated in the 1950s.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call 800-352-8892.

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