Unraveling Fantasy: The Homoerotic Neoclassicism of Jean Cocteau

or, The Gay Surrealist Who Never Was.

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Jean Cocteau in his studio

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 a certain medium (illustration). The analysis is predominately concerned with the role of fantasy in his drawn work, 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.

“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 what he called ‘filles de l’invisible’ — often translated as daughters of the invisible.[2] This enigmatic phrase is how Cocteau characterized fantastical stories, ranging anywhere from the heroism of Orpheus to the resurrection of Christ. Cocteau is speaking of the ethereal and intangible nature of fantasy and dreams, of myth and religion. Concerned with the expanses of the human mind, he “was unwilling to be limited by the boundaries of the rational and wished instead to dissolve them.”[2] Cocteau was content to focus solely on poetic and emotional values. He extrapolated these from existing narratives (e.g. ancient myth) and from his subconscious mind (e.g. his dreamscapes) and translated them into tangible creative expressions, such as illustrations. Each edition of Le Livre blanc contains a different assortment of these drawings. For analysis’ sake, we will review a number of the extant works, although they were published across multiple editions of the book.

“Cocteau’s juxtaposition of the erotic and the unreal expresses a perception of something both terrifying and sacred in sexual acts.”

The novel was first published in Paris as a limited edition in 1928. This
small batch of thirty-one lacked illustrations, and ten of its copies were reserved for the novelist himself. The imprint sported the initials of “[Maurice] Sachs and [Jean] Bonjean … on the title page, making it an official publication of Les Quatre Chemins, [a publishing house] which had already published another book by Cocteau that same year: Le mystère laïc.”[4] Le Livre blanc’s second edition arrived more than a year later in 1930 — once again in Paris, but this time with a frontispiece and seventeen internal illustrations. Cocteau drew the illustrations himself, and they were “hand-coloured by M.B. Armington.”[4] This wider publication (450 copies in total) was “under a [different] imprint: Editions du Signe,” belonging to Ducros and Colas.[4] The book would not see its third edition until 1949, with an entirely new (and more overtly sexual) set of illustrations. These illustrations are the ones most often included contemporary publications of the novel, albeit usually cropped and censored. A man named Paul Morihien was instrumental in publishing this third edition. Morihien was the lover of Cocteau’s partner, Jean Marais; he was also the publisher of Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest, another erotic text illustrated by Cocteau.

ii. the illustrations

The illustrations of Le Livre blanc’s 1930 and 1949 editions, respectively, are
uniquely reflective of their individual social and artistic contexts. While the
1930 edition’s images tend towards saturated color and cosmic symbolism, the 1949 illustrations choose instead to be realistic and sexually explicit. This may seem contradictory, as Paris’s LGBTQ community thrived more pre- than post-war. Perhaps by 1949, under sharper persecution, Cocteau’s work became less of an expression of gay romance and more a rallying cry for queer counterculture. Still, the images from both editions demonstrate a minimal, curvilinear approach — giving the appearance of a continuous line drawing or gesture drawing, despite being comprised of multiple marks. All of Cocteau’s men seem to share the same simplistic and strong face, borrowed from the flat figures of antiquity. Cocteau has lifted from amphorae and rendered in chic, modernist black-and-white.

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Cocteau recasts the Venus de Milo as a male figure, in a particularly blatant commentary on the beauty of his own sex.
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Cocteau makes references to Greco-Roman heroes and religious neoclassicism — including Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, a sixteenth century fresco that was based on a Roman cameo of Augustus.[8]

The lines are … utilitarian in the sense that Cocteau gives us precisely what is needed to suggest the man and the erotic act: nothing more, nothing less.

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A suggestive male nude from Cocteau recalls the iconic Barberini Faun, a sculpture often attributed to the Hellenistic period.

iii. neoclassicism

As evidenced, even Cocteau’s most daring and erotic contributions are
usually grounded in the classicism of the past — which, for the artist, was an
almost ideological compulsion. In the 1920s, Cocteau authored and published a series of essays, collectively referred to as Le Rappel à l’ordre (1926), or “A call to order.” In these texts, Cocteau passionately argues that the post-WWI artistic community should return to what he deems “order” by reincorporating classical elements into their work, rather than continuing strictly modernist pursuits. The influence of Le Rappel à l’ordre was pervasive; even friend and contemporary Pablo Picasso seemed to respond to Cocteau’s plea, forsaking Cubism for his period of Classicism shortly thereafter. This can be seen most notably in Picasso’s Vollard Suite — a series of etchings created during the 1930s. They were commissioned by, and named for, influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard. The suite abounds with classical scenes: it is “filled with bearded and clean-shaven men, with minotaurs, centaurs, faunlike figures, and all kinds of women. Everyone [is] nude or nearly so and they seem … to be playing out a drama from Greek mythology.”[10] The etchings are rife with aesthetic similarities to Cocteau’s illustrations, which is only natural for two sets of work sharing a single point of reference. This can be particularly noted in the “classical linearity” of the Vollard Suite, as well as the narratives Picasso mined for its subject matter.[11] One of Picasso’s inspirations for the suite was the tale of Pygmalion, which chronicles an artist’s romantic love for a sculpture of his own creation. This story is “most inventively told in the poetry of Ovid (Metamorphoses Book X)” and has been reinterpreted by many artists since its inception — Cocteau among them, as previously mentioned.[12] We see Pygmalion reflected in the living statue of Cocteau’s 1930 film Le Sang d’un poète (“The Blood of a Poet”), as well as in the work of one of his more notable acquaintances: photographer George Platt Lynes.

[W]hen the ideal man of ancient society is their subject, Cocteau and Lynes’ homosexual desire is framed not as contemporary deviance, but rather a participation in a centuries-old tradition of male-male desire.

There is perhaps no greater model for pleasure-as-religion or sacred lust
than the Bacchanal, no greater example of intimate brotherhood than the ranks of the ancient armies; the Greek pantheon is known still for its unchecked heterosexual exploits, while homosexual intercourse was a rite of passage in the very same society. These, our tacit understandings of ancient society, are preyed upon by the neoclassical art of Picasso, Cocteau, and Lynes. While Cocteau and Lynes appropriate ancient imagery as a means of encoding homoeroticism into their work, Picasso — a heterosexual artist — explores the violent hypersexuality of gods and monsters through his own erotic images. Classical archetypes become allegories for forbidden passion: Picasso is transmogrified into the minotaur, his extramarital mistress the ravished mortal woman; and, when the ideal man of ancient society is their subject, Cocteau and Lynes’ homosexual desire is framed not as contemporary deviance, but rather a participation in a centuries-old tradition of male-male desire. For these three men, neoclassicism is not merely an aesthetic choice. Instead, the classical forms are exploited as a device, serving as the visual nexus of both sexual and mythological fantasy.

iv. fantasy

If it appears as though much of twentieth century LGBTQ history concentrates in the city of Paris, there lies a simple and potent explanation; any major queer figures chose to make their homes in Paris because it was governed by Napoleonic Code, a unique legal system that belonged to France. In the final paragraph of Le Livre blanc, Cocteau’s protagonist mentions that “in France, this vice, [homosexuality], doesn’t lead to the penitentiary, thanks to the longevity of the Code Napoleon [sic] and the morals of some magistrate.” Yet, although it was not technically illegal, homosexuality “was a subculture nonetheless, and a certain sense of isolation attended upon gay identity then as a matter of course.” Paris, although relatively accepting, was no Berlin.

v. conclusion

At a late point in Le Livre blanc, the protagonist walks into an empty church in a small nautical town: “This church was deserted. The fishermen never entered it. I admired God's unsuccess; masterpieces ought never to be popular. Which does not however prevent them from being illustrious and awe-inspiring.” Cocteau himself was a master of unsuccess. With “a touché a tout (a finger in every pie) Cocteau was often misunderstood. He walked a lonely path but was notoriously ahead of his time”—or, as he would have preferred, the time was notoriously behind him.[16] Cocteau’s personal journey left us with an undoubtedly unique and underrated ouevre. Although we will be perpetually led back to his tabloid-worthy persona and his more mainstreamed films, we cannot achieve a deep understanding of his intentions without also looking to his other work — not the least of which are his illustrations.

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Jean Cocteau’s grave, at the Chapelle Saint Blaise des Simples, Milly-la-Forêt, France [Pierre Metivier]


1 Chanel, Pierre. “A Thousand Flashes of Genius” from Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

xxiv | he/him | theatre artist, art + film historian, educator, advocate.

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