• Julia Sumzina

La poésie de Jean Cocteau

What can we see when we google the name “Jean Cocteau” in the Internet? We can read that he was a French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic. Let's start the month dedicated to this multi talented person, talking about the different kinds of art in which we can discover the pieces created by Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau.



La poésie.

Jean Cocteau called himself a poet, classifying his works – poems, novels, plays, essays, drawings, films – as "poésie", "poésie de roman", "poésie de thêatre", "poésie critique", "poésie graphique" and "poésie cinématographique". So, let's look closer at his poésies.

Cocteau is most know for his poetry and novels, for example, “Le Grand Écart” (1923), “Le Livre Blanc” (1928) and “Les Enfants Terribles” (1929). He found inspiration in a wide range of literature from Sophocles to Stendhal to legends of the Holy Grail, in mythology, art, history and the human nature. There is an interesting fact: during World War I Cocteau served with the Red Cross on the Belgian front. This time inspired him for “Le Grand Écart” or “Thomas l'imposteur”, a novel that introduces the them of death into his works. His “Le Livre Blanc” shocked the French Catholic Community by the theme of sensuality, homosexuality and eroticism. Jean Cocteau was criticized for being too diverse, but this quality with his ability to evoke the dark part of human being where we can find a kind of mystical light makes him special and still actual.


La poésie de thêatre.

As a playwright Cocteau created a big variety of plays like famous “Orphée” (1925), “La Voix Humaine” (1930), “La Machine Infernale” (1934), “Les Parents terribles” (1938), “La Machine à écrire” (1941), “L'Aigle à deux têtes” (1946) and many others. His plays are still on the stages and some of them were adapted for film scenarios, including the works by Roberto Rosselini, Jacques Demy, Jean Claude Brialy, Pedro Almodóvar and Jean Cocteau himself.

His first ballet libretto was written for Sergei Diaghhilev's Ballets Russes in 1917 and the “Parade” (choreography: Léonide Massine) was described by Guillaume Apollinaire as "a kind of surrealism" (une sorte de surréalisme) when he wrote the program note, taking to account the word three years before Surrealism emerged as an art movement in Paris.

“Le train bleu” (1924) was a one-act ballet written by Jean Cocteau, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska to music by Darius Milhaud also for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It is known as the collaboration between Henri Laurens, Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso, who designed costumes and decorations for the ballet.

The most famous ballet written by Cocteau is “Le jeune homme et la mort” (choreography: Roland Petit). This ballet was released in 1946 and then revived not once by the leading ballet companies of the world including the American Ballet Theatre (1975), Paris Opera Ballet (1990), Bolshoi Ballet (2009), Mariinsky Ballet (2012).


La poésie graphique.

The original sketches, paintings, illustrations and designs by Jean Cocteau are still inspiring for artistis. He collaborated with Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, being an extraordinary artist himself. Here we can see some examples of his illustrations:



And paintings:


La poésie cinématographique.

Jean Cocteau first tried directing a film at the age of 36, but his first major film, “Le sang d'un poète” (1932), he made at age 41. His “La belle et la bête” (1946), “Les parents terribles” (1948) and “Orphée” (1950) made Jean Marais a star (then a legend) of European cinema and these films are considered classics of cinematography. Cocteau also acted in his films himself, for example in well-known “Le testament d'Orphée ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi” (1960).


This is a brief guide in the creative universe made by Jean Cocteau, the controversial but enormously significant person in the world culture.

As the conclusion I'd like to recommend you to pay attention on the short film "French Poet and Director of the 1900's, Jean Cocteau" made by M2M and narrated by Timothée Chalamet.



Text and sketch: Julia Sumzina

(sources: Karen L. Taylor “The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel” (2007); Francis Steegmuller "Jean Cocteau: A Brief Biography", Jean Cocteau and the French Scene (1984))

Video: Made To Measure

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