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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Jean Cocteau’s Queer Art Was Notably Cocksure

This essay originally appeared in Reframed, the Art in America newsletter about art that surprises us and works that get us worked up. Sign up here to receive it every Thursday.

The French polymath Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was never content to work in one mode—and was ostracized for it. His retrospective at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is titled “The Juggler’s Revenge”: it makes a case for this versatility, showing a cohesive spirit across works in film, sculpture, collage, drawing, literature, and jewelry.

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No bother, Cocteau was unperturbed, impressively juggling this range of media. He inflected even his most commercial films with avant-garde impulses. An excerpt from his 1930 Surrealist film Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet) features a handsome shirtless man communing with an anthropomorphic armless Classical sculpture. At one point, the man finds a pair of animate lips on his palm, which he then transfers to the sculpture. The sculpture, now equipped with a mouth, instructs the man to go through the looking glass, so he positions himself along its frame and presses his body against it. Suddenly, he splashes through, as if into a swimming pool, and falls into the abyss.

By 1953, Cocteau served as the jury president for the Cannes Film Festival, a post he held two years in a row. But André Breton, Surrealism’s self-appointed gatekeeper, “despised Cocteau,” the catalog reveals—not on the quality of his work, but on the simple fact that Breton was a raging homophobe, describing himself as “completely disgusted” by male homosexuality.

The show positions Cocteau as a brave forerunner for generations of queer artists who would follow. It opens with a piece not by Cocteau, but by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The gesture, from curator and art historian Kenneth E. Silver, highlights Cocteau’s influence on younger generations (but only in this first room: the other works in this 150-plus-object show are by Cocteau or related ephemera). Made in 1991, the year that Ross Laycock, Gonzalez-Torres’s partner died, “Untitled” (Orpheus Twice) features two side-by-side full-length mirrors that recall the Orpheus myth—a long-standing motif in Cocteau’s work. While mourning and with his premature death looming, Gonzalez-Torres seemingly felt like Orpheus: separated from his lover, the twinned mirrors served as a kind of connection to Ross. Next to the mirrors, we see a clip from Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée, which also uses that metaphor of the mirror as a portal—this time, one that takes the protagonist to Hades, where Orpheus seeks to save Eurydice.

Cocteau revisited Orpheus again and again, continually queering the myth. Orphée featured one of French cinema’s leading men, Jean Marais—Cocteau’s lover and muse, 24 years his junior. The artist lived and created authentically, and quite openly at a time when that came at great risk. Surely, this cost him artistic opportunities.

In rough pen-and-ink studies, nude men are rendered as simple line drawings, Cocteau’s detailed draftsmanship reserved for their large, erect penises. One drawing shows a sprawling cock leaping off of a canvas and into the artist’s mouth, while another, of Tristan Tzara, shows the Dadaist Winnie-the-Poohing it with a set of huge balls. In a Classical reference, Cocteau transforms the snakes that wrap Laocoön into bondage ropes. The work pulsates with desire and anguish.

This cocksure tendency for the explicit extends to Cocteau’s impressive literary contributions, including his controversial Le livre blanc (1928), a short novel that relays the narrator’s homosexual tendencies. Located somewhere between hot smut and witty societal observation, the work appeared anonymously, published only because “its merit far exceeds its indecency,” according to the publisher’s foreword. When the book’s second printing came in 1930, Cocteau added drawings, attributed only to the still-anonymous author. Of course, his circle knew they were Cocteau’s. In one, two male visages merge into one torso, united by a tender embrace.

Early in Le livre blanc, the narrator declares, “My misfortunes are due to a society which condemns anything out of the ordinary as a crime and forces us to reform our natural inclinations.” While those condemnations may not have totally disappeared today, at least we now live in a time where Cocteau’s vision can be seen from a different angle, refracted back to us from beyond the looking glass.

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