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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Lines that trace a restless life

The many faces of Cocteau

There is a French maxim that says "Style is the man." If there was ever an embodiment of that phrase, it was the French poet, novelist, playwright, filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau. Considered one of the most creative talents of the 20th century, Cocteau's prodigious creativity is being currently showcased at the Bunkamura Museum in Shibuya in an exhibition dominated by his depictions of the male form.

"Orphee aux Lauriers" (1951)
"Diaghilev et Nijinski a Monte Carlo -- Les Coulisses de 'Sheherazade' " (1912)
"Pecheur" (1957-59) by Jean Cocteau

The son of a wealthy family who enjoyed the freedom to follow his own creative muse, and who mixed and socialized with such creative minds as Picasso and Stravinsky, Cocteau's life appears to be one of effortless glamour, elegance and sophistication, an impression emphasized by the spontaneity of his artwork.

Although pictorial art was only one of the mediums he used to express himself, it naturally dominates the exhibition, which is only able to make a nod in the direction of his filmmaking and writing with a few stills from his films and some manuscript pages.

Cocteau did not take up regular palette painting until late in life, so the majority of his work consists of sketches and caricatures, which reflect the milieu he existed in rather than standing as successful works of art.

A good example of this is a rather childlike Indian ink depiction of Picasso, apparently relaxing at a roadside cafe, penned in 1916. More successful is a 1912 caricature of Diaghilev and Nijinsky which perfectly captures the hard-headedness of the ballet impresario and the prima-donna air of the dancer.

These sketches play a very autobiographical role, especially those featuring his closer friends, such as his protege, the author Raymond Radiguet. The intimacy of these works leave the viewer in no doubt about Cocteau's homosexual interests.

Although often no more than mere doodles, the sketches often reveal Cocteau's intuitive affinity for line and his ability to suggest mass through line alone. This skill allowed him to capture the essence of a specific individual with an extreme economy of means. A good example of this are his two portraits of Yvon Belaval and his moody lead pencil sketches of his close friend, the actor Jean Marais.

His addiction to opium is also well represented in a series of surreal sketches which build up agonized figures using cones and cylinders, suggesting the disintegration of identity and the sense of hollowness created by narcotics.

Some of his most interesting works are the mandrake roots he sketched in 1936. Renowned for their humanlike morphology, these roots provided Cocteau with the perfect subject, allowing him to explore his own imagination and confused sexuality, as the shapes suggested fingers, faces, genitalia and orifices.

In 1948, after a period of relative inactivity, due in part to the war but also to his opium addiction, Cocteau became interested in color, initially through pastels. Two years later, at the age of 60, he took up easel painting.

"To paint without being a born painter is not easy," he sadly lamented, but unencumbered by formal training, he was free to experiment with an amazing variety of styles and materials.

At the exhibition there are works of pastel, crayon and oil, on white paper, colored paper, board and canvas.

"Orphee aux lauriers" (Orpheus with Laurels) (1951) retains the economy of line for which he was famous, but the use of color, painted in sky tones, allows him to create a feeling of depth, giving the main figure a glasslike quality.

Another excellent color work is "Pecheur" (Fisherman) (1957-58), which uses warm pastel colors on wood board to depict a fish-eyed figure with a quiff and sideburns, reflecting the contemporaneous advent of rock 'n' roll.

There is a protean quality to the art of Cocteau. Like the classical sea god Proteus, his work assumes a myriad of forms and shapes, and follows different directions.

This restlessness may suggest confusion, fickleness and an arbitrary nature, but this need to transform and change was deeply rooted in Cocteau's psychology and is the most interesting and profound aspect of the man and his work. Ultimately, the style of the man was his substance.

"Jean Cocteau: Ils, Anges ou Demons" runs until May 20 at the Bunkamura Museum, (03) 3477-9252, Shibuya, Tokyo. Open 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.) Admission is 1,200 yen for adults, 800 yen for university and high school students and 500 yen for children.

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