Unraveling Fantasy: The Homoerotic Neoclassicism of Jean Cocteau

or, The Gay Surrealist Who Never Was.

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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]

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.

In Jean Cocteau’s illustrations, we witness the same pull towards the mythological and fantastical evident in his iconic films (the 1930 film Le Sang d’un poète, for example). Many of the illustrations are erotic in nature, but Cocteau’s libidinous excursions become sublimated from mere lurid fantasy through their unification 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 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.

Le Livre blanc, or “The White Paper,” is a semi-autobiographical account of
queer sexual experiences, spanning from the protagonist’s youth to adulthood. The novel, despite being imbued by Cocteau with a sense of contemporaneity, abounds with echoes of antiquity. It has one foot in Cocteau’s own time, astutely surveying the Parisian underworld, and the other in the ancient West. 1920s France is analogized to Greece and Rome, with mention of classical busts and The Satyricon (a first century Latin fiction), as well as figures including Hercules, Hyacinth, Narcissus, and “mythological divinities” in general.[3] There is no shortage of Judeo-Christian motifs either, with manifold references to God and angels, monks and monasteries, priesthood and sainthood, and more. The novel also chronicles the sexual awakenings and experimentations of its protagonist, but often uses the aforementioned imagery to cast these experiences in an unexpected and elevated light. Cocteau’s juxtaposition of the erotic and the unreal expresses a perception of something both terrifying and sacred in sexual acts.

“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.

Cocteau had a knack for transmuting the bluntly sexual into a nuanced drawing; as illustrator for Querelle de Brest, Cocteau created some of his most explicit images. His depictions of oral and anal intercourse, as well as male masturbation, illuminated Genet’s boundary-pushing tale of crime and bisexuality. Cocteau’s own Le Livre blanc, despite taking a more subtle approach to the subject matter, was published anonymously. Cocteau refused to claim authorship of the novel even unto his death. He did, however, sign the illustrations of its second and third editions, and “after publication, neither Sachs nor Cocteau were very discrete [sic] about their involvement” in its creation.[4] Cocteau explains this confusion away “by adding a short manuscript note to the second French edition and a longer foreword to the English one,” asserting that Le Livre blanc’s anonymity assures its universality: if there is no confirmed author, readers may experience a deeper emotional suturing with the protagonist.[5] In some sense, though, Cocteau’s willingness to confirm the drawings as his own still contradicts his denial of authorship — communicating to the outside observer that he may have been, ironically, a poet more comfortable expressing visual truths than verbal ones.

“When a work appears to be ahead of its time,
it is only the time that is behind the work

– Jean Cocteau, Le Coq et l’Arlequin (1918)[6]

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.

In Le Livre blanc, the protagonist makes frequent reference to a visual
doubling between the men (and yes, women) who make up his pantheon of lovers. This is summated by a climactic moment at the end of the novel, when the protagonist meets a man of the cloth who resembles all of his past paramours: “His profile etched itself against the stone wall. It was the profile of Alfred, of H*** [name redacted in the original text], of Rose, of Jeanne, of Dargelos, of Lousy Luck, of Gustave and of the farm-boy.” Here, Cocteau seems to be saying that each person is a different manifestation of the same desire. This passage is demonstrative of Cocteau’s concept of “unraveling” the language and transforming it into visual poetry through illustration; Cocteau’s drawings do not simply accompany the text, but rather reconstitute it. That is to say, the sameness in all of Cocteau’s figural sketches serves as a visual representation of the protagonist’s obsessive attraction to a certain kind of individual (i.e., what we might consider his sexual or romantic ‘type’).

Contrastingly, the illustrations for the 1930 edition could easily be categorized as Surrealist — had Cocteau not actively dissociated himself from the movement, and had the movement not actively excluded Cocteau. The Surrealist movement was largely a ‘boys’ club’ that considered Cocteau too fay and unserious for its ranks; they also looked down upon his commercial success and propensity to explore a multitude of mediums. Contemporary scholarship has necessitated further exploration of “how Cocteau’s gay desire can exist side by side with, say, [Surrealist André] Breton’s heterosexual desire. Just as the [heterosexual] male surrealists placed attractive women at the center of their art, so Cocteau placed attractive men,” which — despite similarities in style and intention — alienated him from their ranks.[7] Unlike the Surrealists and famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (of whom Cocteau was vocally critical) Cocteau luxuriated in mystery, rejecting clarity. Rather than search for concrete answers or decipher meanings (like Freud), or pursue a deeper understanding of the self through the act of creation (like the Surrealists), Cocteau sought to induce a hypnotic effect through his work. He hoped to inspire something of the dream state in his viewers, not simply
document dreams themselves. Still, there is an aesthetic similarity between what an artist like André Breton would call ‘surreal’ and what Jean Cocteau would call ‘fantastical.’ It could be ventured that Cocteau’s disdain for Surrealism was less philosophically motivated and more of a personal vendetta (albeit, a justified one).

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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.

Labels aside, this edition’s colorful images do trot well beyond the outskirts of reality, whether via a spider’s web of intertwined limbs; a male nude with flowing locks like Rapunzel; or, the living statues which Cocteau sometimes wielded as a reference to Pygmalion. The work is “filled with images of beautiful male angels come down to earth; his drawings are often male nudes, sometimes missing their arms, as if to remake the Venus de Milo as a male figure (or to invoke the ‘ancient torso of Apollo’ from Rilke’s famous sonnet).”[7] These drawings could skew towards body horror, had he not imbued them with delicacy — a lightness of touch given to even his most bizarre imaginings which downplays their more horrific aspects. Instead, Cocteau (as always) places emphasis on his “invisible”: fantasy, suggestions of memory through the fragmentation of image, and doppelganger similarity across his male figures. The delineations between faces and bodies seem to evaporate in a mist of desire, fostering an effect of entanglement that preserves the novel’s homoerotic overtones — even when the illustrations are at their most conceptual and abstracted.

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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 illustrations for the following edition in 1949 feel literal, almost banal,
by comparison. Yet, even when Cocteau is not directly treating ancient subjects, their aesthetic influence remains present: we see echoes of the Barberini Faun in the way the 1949 nudes carelessly recline; we catch a glimpse of Olympic wrestlers through the sexualized grappling of his youths; and, on a more meta level, we find reference to the neoclassicism of the Renaissance. This includes a cheeky quote of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (which itself was likely based on a Roman cameo).[8] The lines are expressive, as in the previous edition, but they are also utilitarian in the sense that Cocteau gives us precisely what is needed to suggest the man and the erotic act: nothing more, nothing less. Where formatting is concerned, the scenes curve around the text of the novel — implying an intimate relationship between Cocteau’s words and images, and subtly paralleling the intimate relationships between his characters.

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.

Unlike the 1930 edition’s colorful illustrations, the drawings here are exclusively black and white — and, while the previous publication may have one or two direct visual quotes (such as the Venus de Milo) the 1949 edition seems to more accurately emulate the aesthetics of antiquity. Regardless, both share a commitment to Cocteau’s fantasy: to the “invisible” and to homoerotic themes, but with a distinct neoclassical bent. Although similar mythological and religious motifs are admittedly common in the canon of queer art (one cannot deny the profound ubiquity of Saint Sebastian in gay iconography, for instance), these motifs are part of Cocteau’s oeuvre in a uniquely intrinsic way. Throughout his body of work, he diligently develops a characteristic balance of classical sensibility and modern eroticism. Whether heroes wearing laurels or sailors in dalliance, Jean Cocteau’s sensuous explorations of the male form are always an ode to the epicene and sensitive — yet heroically masculine — ideal of ancient society.

“Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it
produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality
and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job.”
– Jean Cocteau, Le Rappel à l’ordre (1926)[9]

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.

Cocteau and Lynes had very similar concerns in their interpretations of
mythology. Both used myth as a means of exploring what exists beyond tangible reality, as well as masking for same-sex desire in their work. One of Lynes’ first photographic subjects was Jean Cocteau in 1928, and he made his living as a fashion photographer for Vogue and other mainstream publications. Lynes’ relationship to the male body in his work was equal parts amorous and classical. He was formalist in his compositions, and frequently utilized dramatic lighting that seemed to reference the Caravaggisti school of the Baroque period. His subjects ranged from Acamas, to Dionysus, to Eros, to the great Orpheus — Cocteau’s favorite mythological hero, who lends his name to the title of a seminal J.C. film. For these reasons Lynes, too, was a poster child for Cocteau’s “call to order.” (Lynes would eventually be cited as an influence on Robert Mapplethorpe, another prominent queer photographer with strong formal and classical elements).

[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.

“Be a mere assistant to your unconscious.
Do only half the work. The rest will do itself.”

– Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown (1953)[13]

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.

In his text De anima, or On the Soul, Aristotle posits “fantasy” as a more attainable substitute for desire. Certainly, this classical definition can be readily applied to Cocteau’s work. According to Aristotle, “fantasy transmits and reformulates the sense material with the help of which the mind can construct judgements [sic].”[14] In other words, through the act of fantasizing, the individual’s sense memory is reconstituted into an imaginary pleasure; to further simplify, what was felt then can be felt now. Fantasy, in this more bodily sense, played a vital role for the queer community of the twentieth century. Same-sex acts were still criminalized in many places, or at the very least considered outré and highly distasteful by most. The possession of same-sex erotica (or even fine art photography of male nudes, as in the case of George Platt Lynes) was sometimes enough to warrant inquiry or arrest — let alone actual homosexual practice. Despite the dangers connected to his identity, however, “Cocteau was far from closeted and isolated; in fact, he was at the very center of the gay subculture.”[7] Couples like Jean Cocteau and his longtime partner, actor Jean Marais, or Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, could live reasonably ‘out-of-the-closet’ lives in Paris without any real fear of being legally persecuted. However, it is necessary to realize that the gap between our contemporary conception of being publicly homosexual and theirs is a vast one. For them, this ‘lifestyle’ was still largely contingent on remaining part of the subculture; there was no such thing as openly participating in same-sex relationships while simultaneously participating in the mainstream. Even celebrated gay artists and performers of the time, such as nightlife icon Gene Malin, were appreciated moreso as entertaining caricatures than as actual human beings (Malin famously failed his transition from the underground theatre of the Prohibition era to the golden world of Hollywood because he was considered, in crude terms, too gay for major studio films). Cocteau was acutely aware of this social climate and, rather than adjust to it, made himself “a deliberate scandal.”[15] The same could be said of his work, which functioned as both a tantalization and an implicit political statement. While referencing the idealized men of Greco-Roman pottery and sculpture, Cocteau simultaneously captured — and participated in — the taboo subculture of homoerotic desire in the twentieth century.

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal... unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. [...] He invents. He transfigures. He mythifies. He creates. He fancies himself an artist.”

– Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown[13]

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.

These drawings, which have been “described as ‘obscenely pious’, [are] torn between a fallen ideal, the sexuality of dreams and a slide into fantasy.”[16] They are also conspicuously absent from many art historical discussions concerning his contemporaries. Cast off from the Surrealists and often forgotten in the contemporary discourse, Jean Cocteau has nevertheless trickled his way into popular culture; from the legendary Cocteau Twins (who took their name from Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) to an upcoming Pedro Almodóvar flick based on Cocteau’s play La voix humaine, we somehow manage to revere his contributions without acknowledging the bulk of his actual output. We may speculate that this is due to his work’s explicitly homoerotic nature, or perhaps because of Cocteau’s reputation as the “frivolous prince,” an artist who flitted from here to there with no real commitment or creation of meaning. A close reading of his work quickly dispels this characterization; what we see is not an artist with no direction, but rather one who clings almost obsessively to a singular vision across a multitude of media.

However, it must be acknowledged that the less generous perception of Cocteau was, to some extent, self-mythologized. He took full ownership of his role as effete aesthete, even going so far as to entitle one of his earlier publications “Le prince frivole” — after a nickname which is, at turns, both flattering and condescending. He spent his life alternately pursuing relationships with attractive younger men, struggling with an addiction to opium, and manifesting his fantasies by way of camera or pen. When he died on October 11th, 1963, at the age of 74, he was interred in a crypt he had prepared himself: painted with a mural, in the characteristically minimal linework of Le livre blanc, depicting the Christ and a liege of Roman soldiers. Cocteau, it seems, chased the invisible to the very end of the line.

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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.

2 Renger, Almut-Barbara. Oedipus and the Sphinx: The Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

3 Cocteau, Jean. The White Paper (Le livre blanc). New York, NY: The Macaulay Company, 1958.

4 “Le livre blanc.” Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands).

5 Canovas, Frederic. “Jean Cocteau’s Le Livre blanc: Sex, text and images.” Word and Image 23, no. 1, p. 1–15.

6 Cocteau, Jean. Le coq et l’arlequin. Paris: La Sirène, 1918.

7 Vicari, Justin. Mad Muses and the Early Surrealists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012.

8 Bruce Sutherland, “CAMEO APPEARANCES ON THE SISTINE CEILING,” Source: Notes in the History of Art 32, no. 2 (Winter 2013): 12–18.

9 Cocteau, Jean. A call to order: written between the years 1918 and 1926 and including Cock and harlequin, Professional secrets, and other critical essays. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1974.

10 Stauble, Katherine. “Picasso’s Vollard Suite: Men, Women and Minotaurs.” National Gallery of Canada Magazine. May 09, 2016.

11 “Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite.” The British Museum.

12 “Picasso + The Vollard Suite.” National Gallery of Australia.

13 Cocteau, Jean. Diary of an Unknown. Saint Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1991.

14 Palmén, Ritva. Richard of St. Victor’s Theory of Imagination. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

15 Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau: A Biography. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company, 1970.

16 Bains, Harman. “The Cock in Cocteau.” Sang Bleu Magazine, October 12, 2014.

All figures courtesy of cited authors or the Musée du Louvre, with exceptions noted.

Written by

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

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