Jean Cocteau

By: Peggy Nelson
July 5, 2011

Modernist Midas JEAN COCTEAU (1889-1963) defined the avant-garde throughout the early 20th century, producing influential work in almost every area of art: poetry, literature, film, theater, sound pieces, illustration, dance. The easeful elegance Cocteau brought to his myriad pursuits sometimes earned him the sobriquet of style over substance, but there was depth to his perceptions. Even in a filmed fairy tale like his 1946 La Belle et la Bête, beauty is cast in an equal partnership with a grim moral: fur and fangs are no match for the truly monstrous within. A one-man social network, Cocteau’s list of artistic collaborators included Diaghilev, Satie, Jean Marais, Nijinsky, Apollinaire, Picasso, Edith Piaf, and Les Six; his list of friends, almost everyone else. His dance with style and substance took a serious misstep during WWII when an enthusiastic 1942 article promoting the work of Nazi sculptor Arno Breker resulted in a postwar arraignment (although ultimate acquittal) on collaboration charges. Cocteau’s category-crossing experimental output presages our 21st century multimedia mashups. But we may find a compass for our own carnivalesque in Cocteau’s insistence that he was a poet, no matter what the medium.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Chuck Close and RZA.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884-93).