I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

To Be Cocteau, to Be French

by A Wolfe
Sept. 15, 2011

There is a moment where Jean Cocteau takes the neatly dressed television hostess into the house and obscures her in the dark. He borrows a tube of her lipstick, steps behind a sliding glass door, and sketches in rouge the profile of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, poetry, and music. Just before he finishes the profile, he reaches down and signs his name backwards in cursive, so we, the audience, may see it as it’s supposed to be read, from left to right. He claims ownership. A moment later, he finishes the drawing with a hairline, and walks away from his impromptu creation. There is the drawing, and there is the room we see beyond it through the glass.

Cocteau was obsessed with mirrors and alternate realities. Many of his cinematic pieces invoked the use of literal mirrors as well as conceptual ones—open doorways with exact replicas of rooms in reversed order to appear as a mirror with an alternate world beyond. Many thought him obsessed not with mirrors, but with himself, an idea that he both perpetuated and refuted through his films, books, and music. Most notably, there is the Testament of Orpheus, written, directed by, and starring Cocteau himself (as himself). Somewhat a take on Dante’s InfernoTestament is Cocteau’s imagined travels through death and life and art. In 1962, Bosley Crowther wrote a review of the film for the New York Times, in which he stated that it was “really just a glorified home movie that should appeal mainly to the poet's admirers and friends.” Crowther goes on to say that the film is so self-referential with regard to the two previous “Orphic” films of the trilogy that to come to it “cold,” an audience would have little ability to understand it at all. Also put on trial are Cocteau’s looks, with Crowther stating that he is “no longer pretty,” which suggests that the poet’s sole value is that, whether or not he could be interpreted, he was at the very least elegant and easy on the eyes.

In fact, Cocteau’s looks seemed to bring him enemies even as he was embraced for them by the public, almost as though they were saying, “Thank god you have a singular and recognizable appearance; it comforts me to know that which I am hating.” His numerous public appearances in the company of artistic giants earned him only a socialite status while others in the group were still artists.

Never out for dispute, however, was Cocteau’s allegiance to being French. Here he states he is “very French,” which is at odds with the living legacy he had built in his homeland. On May 18, 1917, a collaboration of Picasso, Satie, and Cocteau, among others, created the controversial ballet, Parade. For some, the performance struck nerves while Frenchmen lay on the battlefield. Challenging societal norms through humor, Satie and Cocteau were actually brought up on charges and called “cultural anarchists.” But this wouldn’t be the last time Cocteau was disinherited from the French. In an article published in Vanity Fair in 1922, Edmund Wilson, Jr. insinuated that Cocteau was actually so very smitten with New York and American art that he loved it without even seeing it. And during the Nazi occupation of France, Cocteau’s budding friendship with Hitler’s sculptor, Arno Breker, called into question the conscience of the artist and the responsibility of the artist to his homeland and cultural identity. Breker, who died in 1991, was said to have a large bust of Cocteau at the very front entrance of his home up until the day he died.

Yet, Cocteau states he is “very French.”

In his reality, he is the replica room behind the mirror, and France is merely the room in the immediate foreground. While both share construction and geometric values, they are in fact complete opposites, both existing for the other, as there’s no clear idea as to which appeared first. From Cocteau’s point of view, France has been magnified outward from him.

Almost 50 years have passed since Cocteau’s death, and he’s still embroiled in a French scandal. In June of 2011, the French people were incensed by the possible forgeries included in a Cocteau estate, which had been left to the French citizens by an American art collector, only on the condition that a museum would have to be built to house the donated pieces. The donor, a man named Wunderman, who led a reclusive and often violent lifestyle in Orange County, California, seemed to terrify most of the people with whom he came into contact. Still, he had at least one passion in life, and that was collecting the drawings and photographs of Jean Cocteau. The French people are now concerned with legitimizing the collection, even though the museum is set to open in late 2011, only a few months away. The problem with this is that two separate experts have been called in to authenticate the pieces. One has been appointed by the Cocteau family heirs, while the other was appointed by the Cocteau Committee, which is in charge of the estate. Yet a third expert was called in, and the third found that at least 35 works were probably duplicated and inauthentic. These will not be displayed in the museum.

But are they inauthentic? For an artist whose obsession lay in replicas -- copies of the assumed reality -- as representation of the other artistic self, would Cocteau object to 35 mirror images of himself displayed alongside those which we perceive to be the true orientation of his art? A work replicated is merely a mirror within a mirror within a mirror—Cocteau’s never-ending game.

Referenced Works:


The American version of this breaking news is more focused on the eccentricity of Wunderman than on Cocteau and its scandal. In America, we are outrightly accepting of what absurdity it takes to become the individual.


Notice the focus on the dispute between the two parties who lay claim to being the sole evaluators of original Cocteau artwork.


The actual premise of Parade seems pretty crazy. The parade that precedes a circus is on full display in this ballet, so much so that everyone’s lost interest in the circus, especially when the parade is free, and the circus charges for entry. Seems as though Cocteau foresaw the internet revolution on a philosophical level.i


Satie, with his perfect grey suits and umbrellas, could not possibly have been a better visual acquaintance to Jean Cocteau.


The New York Times has ingeniously begun republishing their archived articles. This review from 1962 represents a vastly different time in our journalism, a time when we were more likely to disseminate pieces that were fired by a personal passion that left objectivity in the dust. Writers were building a personality and eschewing the collectivism and ubiquity that we see in contemporary journalism, which is interesting because Crowthers’ main criticism of Cocteau is that he is too visible in his own work.

http://books.google.com/books?id=uo0aegArJgUC&pg=PA31&lpg=PA31&dq=cocteau+breker+hitler&source=bl&ots=YhtyAqVjQ-&sig=WhSBSY9bNvaRnG7M7vaIH1OYGfg&hl=en&ei=u7NuTp_tDs7KsQLI7fD0CQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=cocteau%20breker%20hitler&f=false , pg. 31

It’s interesting what this book is insinuating about the selfishness of the artist, with regard to Breker, Picasso, and Cocteau. Strangely enough, though, Picasso is the one artist of the three whose work is now actually separate from the man and the legacy. Museum-goers can enjoy a Picasso without the history of the man, while Breker and Cocteau fans will bear a much larger burden.



oldmagazinearticles.com is a wonderful database for discovering texts from the old microfiche room. In 1922, it seems Americans were falling all over themselves to claim jazz as their own and the most influential movement in the world, neglecting the fact that jazz roots lay in black America.


In the article, Breker is noted for saying that he never did create any piece of art that resembled Hitler, and when the author produces a magazine featuring a bronze sculpture of Hitler done by Breker himself, Breker takes the magazine copy, telling the writer he will return it to him after he makes the copy. The magazine was never returned.

A Wolfe is a writer and director in Los Angeles. awolfeswolfworld.wordpress.com