L'oiseau chante avec ses doigts. Je repète. Deux fois. L'oiseau chante avec ses doigts ...
-- Message over the car radio in Cocteau's Orphee
It appears that several upcoming posts here are going to feature the themese of (1) things cultural and Canadian and/or (2) my unfashionable tastes in the visual arts. For starters, here's an item that features both.
From Canada's The Walrus magazine comes a profile by Toronto critic John Bentley Mays of Jean Cocteau, triggered by a seemingly enormous retrospective exhibition running through the summer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (having originated at the Centre Pompidou, Paris):
'Cocteau's work is strewn with references,' writes François Nemer in the catalogue of this show. 'These references are not taken from the further fringes of Western culture, but from its main, classical and academic trunk, the one that underpins the public education system and provides illustrated dictionaries with their imagery. They suggest not so much the elitist arrogance of a son of the cultivated bourgeoisie as the rather confined atmosphere and gentle nostalgia of a floor littered with open books, holiday souvenirs, photographs of friends and family and postcards in a sick child's bedroom.'
At least he knew something. Intelligent young North Americans nowadays have very little general culture, or much easy acquaintance with history, art, mythology, architecture — things that, only a few decades ago, were acquired as a matter of course by anybody who wanted an intellectual life. Contemporary aesthetic culture takes little pleasure in Cocteau's brand of light, broad learning. In due course, one suspects, generalists like him will probably disappear altogether, and we will be poorer for that. Even now, our taste for highly specialized learning and our suspicion of dilettantes disincline us to take anyone seriously who does it all. And Cocteau, indeed, did it all: wrote and directed plays, made his great film Le Sang d'un poète in 1930, decorated a chapel, designed a 20-centime French stamp. The diversity of his art-making has always been among the most grievous offences held against him by critics. (Another was letting himself be turned into a celebrity in the 1950s — but why not? Years of gazing at himself in the mirror had taught him how good he looked to the camera, and he did love to talk.)
Mays' view is that it is Cocteau's work as a filmmaker that will last -- the subjects of his photographs are more interesting than the photos themselves, and Cocteau's drawings show only "lazy refinement, . . . with hardly a trace of the imaginative vigour and breadth of a Matisse or Picasso or Modigliani" -- at least until there is some generational sea change in our views of art.
It is for another generation to enjoy, without a skeptical smile, the visual imagination of the man who, late in life, wrote this little manifesto of evasion: 'Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort, the trifling feeling of escape experienced at a masked ball. He distances himself from that which he feels and sees. He invents. He transfigures. He mythifies. He creates. He fancies himself an artist.'
I could wish that I had some excuse to get to Montreal, if only to try to get my hands on a copy of the very attractive poster for this show. [That's not it, up at the top of this post; you can see it on the Museum's site. It's blue and filled with stars and based on a photo of Cocteau by Man Ray.] Cocteau's drawings are delicious trifles: they don't linger, but they are full of pleasures at the moment you happen to be contemplating them. The films -- particularly Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus -- are things of permanent wonder, however.
An Incidental Treat for the Fans: Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast remains for me one of the most truly and unironically magical films ever made. Those who share my enthusiasm will no doubt be tickled by this site, in French, taking us away to the actual château de la Bête. "Alors, cher monsieur, vous me volez mes roses. . . ."
[Update: And shame on me for initially failing to credit Arts & Letters Daily as the source for the link to the Walrus article.]