Unraveling Fantasy: The Homoerotic Neoclassicism of Jean Cocteau

Brian Matthews
17 min readMar 23, 2020

or, The Gay Surrealist Who Never Was.

Jean Cocteau in his studio

“Poets don’t draw. They unravel their handwriting
and then tie it up again, but differently.”

– Jean Cocteau, Dessins (1924) trans. Pierre Chanel[1]

i. early life + work

Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau was born on July 5th, 1889, in a suburb of Paris. Recognized today primarily as a Surrealist filmmaker, Cocteau, surprisingly, considered himself neither. Instead, he self-identified as a poet — one who dealt in fantasies, and hopscotched from medium to medium in their pursuit. In recent years, art historians and cultural critics have made efforts to establish a wider breadth to our study of Jean Cocteau. While they have ventured from the realm of film study into examinations of his literary and theatrical contributions, there are still significant gaps in the discourse, especially in regard to his illustrations. Rather than a biographical effort or general survey, this article will decrease the scope and argue specific claims about his use of that medium. The analysis is predominately concerned with the role of ‘fantasy’ in these works, particularly illustrations that accompany his 1928 novel Le Livre blanc. It will also examine the shared mythological influences of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and photographer George Platt Lynes.

In Jean Cocteau’s illustrations, we witness the same pull towards the mythological and fantastical evident in his most iconic films (the 1930 film Le Sang d’un poète, for example). Many of the illustrations are erotic in nature, but Cocteau’s libidinous desire is sublimated through its blending with the mythic and unreal. Two subjects, then, dominate his work: mythology and men. Fantasy is an overarching theme, unifying both. Cocteau intelligently puns on the duality of the word by imbuing erotic fantasies with motifs of the fantastical — i.e. sexual scenes synthesized with myth and dreamlike imagery.

“Two subjects, then, dominate his work: mythology and men. Fantasy is an overarching theme, unifying both.”

Across all of his work and collaborative relationships, Cocteau exhibits an almost obsessive draw toward…

Brian Matthews

Non-fiction probing the queer and modern corners of art history. Poetry as autobiography.