Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a writer, painter, and a director who began his way in art as an avant-garde representative and became a living classic by the end of his life. He is mostly known for his surrealistic films like “Orpheus” (1950) and “The Testament of Orpheus” (1960). Remarkably, Cocteau insisted on calling himself a poet and defined his works in different spheres of art as “poetry,” “novel poetry,” “theatrical poetry,” “critical poetry,” “graphical poetry,” “cinematic poetry.”
Born in a small town outside Paris, Cocteau’s childhood experiences shaped his own artistic vision – especially the memory of his father committing suicide when he was just nine years old. He had come to terms with his sexuality at an early age and even had a boyfriend during his school years. “As far back as I can remember, and even at an age when the mind does not yet influence the senses, I find traces of my love of boys,” Cocteau admitted later.
Over the course of his life, Cocteau had affairs with many notable figures such as the French novelist Raymond Radigue and the boxer Panama Al Brown among others. However, the highlight of his romantic life was his relationship with actor Jean Marais who maintained a productive creative partnership with Cocteau while also being in love. Together, they were described as the “first modern gay couple”.
From 1910 to 1920 years, Cocteau shaped his poetic individuality, trying himself as a dadaist in the book “Poems” and as a surrealist in the book “Opera.” Along with his literature experiments, he achieved popularity as a graphic painter working in a cubist style. Esthetic views of Cocteau were influenced by multiple sources, among which were works of composers Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky, the ballet of Sergey Diaghilev, paintings of Picasso, and the poetry of Apollinaire. In the 1910s, Cocteau made an acquaintance with the representatives of the Parisian bohemia. His figure became a prototype of dandy Octave in Marcel Prust’s novel series “In Search of Lost Time.”
Frequently his work, either literary (Les enfants terribles), graphic (erotic drawings, book illustration, paintings) or cinematographic (The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast), is pervaded with homosexual undertones, homoerotic imagery/symbolism or outright camp. In 1947 Paul Morihien published a clandestine edition of Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet, featuring 29 very explicit erotic drawings by Cocteau. In recent years several albums of Cocteau’s homoerotica have been available to the general public.
Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Forêt, Essonne, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74. His friend, French singer Édith Piaf, died the day before but that was announced on the morning of Cocteau’s day of death; it has been said that his heart failed upon hearing of Piaf’s death. Actually, according to author Roger Peyrefitte, Cocteau was devastated after a breach with his longtime friend and patronness Francine Weisweiller.
According to his wishes Cocteau is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt. The epitaph on his gravestone set in the floor of the chapel reads: “I stay with you” (“Je reste avec vous”).