HONG KONG — I fell in love with Jean Cocteau when I was 19. I spent nights taking photographs of his epic 1930 film The Blood of a Poet frame by frame. The infatuation was similar to one I had with Picasso, whose paintings I copied obsessively, determined to learn the language of the man who made “Guernica.” In both cases, my heart was eventually broken. First, I learned Picasso used women like he used his paintbrushes. Then it transpired that Cocteau was a Nazi sympathizer. It was hard to know where I stood with both artists afterwards.
With Picasso, it was easier, of course — he was a man, after all. Cocteau was different, a more complex and nuanced spectre. I wondered: what would I have done if I were an artist living in Paris when Hitler’s tanks rolled in? Thankfully, he was no Heidegger, a full-fledged member of the Nazi party. And he was a firm supporter of Jean Genet, the notorious enfant terrible of the queer scene, even defending Genet in court in 1941. Cocteau’s Nazi shadow made no sense. I thought of this when gazing at the 230 pieces currently on view in a major exhibition of his work at the Hong Kong City Hall, alongside works created by and with friends and associates from Picasso to de Chirico.
The show begins with a series of pencil- and pen-on-paper self-portraits that form an artist book — Cocteau’s format of choice — produced in 1925, “The Mystery of Jean the Flower.” In the series, Cocteau explores his sense of self through the celestial, with his face made up of constellations, and the natural, with the spiral of his eye connected to the curve of his chin. Each image is executed simply, with clean lines, and annotated with scribbles of thoughts on life, death, and opium addiction. The self-exploration continues in a closed-off room titled “Erotica,” where there are more drawings, these ones as explicit as their titles: “Anal Sex,” “Cruising,” “Struggle.” There’s a selection from “A White Paper” (1930), an artist book exploring the internal world of sexuality and identity, too: a drawing of man with two heads; a naked man on horseback blindfolded with a second, headless body draped over his back.
Reflection and duality are key themes in Cocteau’s work. A scene from his film Orpheus (1949) begins with the beautiful (and Cocteau lookalike) Jean Marais pressing his hands against a window, recalling another iconic image from the movie in which Marais’s face presses against his own reflection longingly. The reflective surface, the mirror, is a common prop in Cocteau’s films (also featured in the famous scene in The Blood of the Poet when “the poet” falls into a mirror that suddenly turns into a pool of water). In his early self-portraits, the reflective potential of a piece of paper works like the cinematic image, as a portal enacting a desire to know and transcend one’s self.
Perhaps it was this desire that propelled Cocteau to draw and study himself consistently. The search also seems to have continued through others, from his portraits of history’s greats — Einstein, Shakespeare, Chaplin, Tolstoy, Jules Verne, Friedrich Nietzsche, to those of his contemporaries — composer Erik Satie, poet Paul Éluard, and writer and painter Max Jacob. He immortalized Jean Marais and his clear infatuation with the actor in a stone bust titled “Jean Marais as a Faun” (1939).
This need to seek out one’s reflection could also explain those physical, bullish desires that drive men and women to befriend, love, and bed each other. This recalls another common motif in Cocteau’s work, the bull, which plays out in the influences of mythology, the idea of humans having the characteristics of animals, the animalism of flamenco, and bullfighting. The bull features in one scene of The Blood of the Poet as an invocation of the myth of Zeus turning himself into the animal so as to rape the Phoenician woman Europa. This legend forms the title of a series of coloured prints published in 1939, “[The Rape of Europa], We Believe in Europe,” which features multiple faces in each work. Some have profiles protruding from either side of the face and subtitles below, such as one that bears the phrase “L’Europe, notre patrie” (Europe, our homeland). This dream of European unity feels as cynical (and as hopeful) now as it must have in 1939.
The Hong Kong exhibition, which also includes a remarkable suite of artist books by Matisse and Braque that situate Cocteau in a tradition of artists who drew as if they were writing and wrote as if they were thinking, is an homage to a man of many faces and guises. Of particular note are a series of joint artist books created with the likes of Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Hans Bellmer, Bernard Buffet, Leonard Fujita, and Christian Bérard — a testament to Cocteau’s love of collaboration. Then there are the portraits of him by fellow artists Modigliani, Picasso, Buffet, Jacques-Émile Blanche, and Warhol, views of Cocteau by those who knew him. They are surprisingly bland in their elegance — Cocteau as a man whose anxieties were kept hidden from public view.
In the end, despite the volume of works on view and the efficacy with which they present a man enamored of the celestial laws of nature, the magic of word and image, and the myths of history, I remain at once in love and at a loss. As with all of Cocteau’s work, the exhibition presents the reflection of a man reflecting on himself, and I am left to make vain attempts at reflecting back on him.
Jean Cocteau: Spirit of the 20th century Parisian Scene is view until June 9 at Hong Kong City Hall (5 Edinburgh Place, Central, Hong Kong) as part of the annual Le French May Festival in Hong Kong.