Jean Cocteau was an enormously influential French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist, critic, and one of the leading figures of the Dada and Surrealist movements.
Born into a wealthy family in a small town near Paris, Cocteau spent his childhood reading, playing, and dressing in costumes. His youth was marked, however, by the tragic suicide of his father when Cocteau was only ten years old. Following his father's death, Cocteau began writing poetry and was enrolled in a private school where he struggled in everything but drawing and gymnastics. In 1907, he and his mother moved permanently to Paris and the following year Cocteau published his first volume of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp.
In Paris, Cocteau immersed himself in the literary salons, befriending novelists, painters, and actors. When Cocteau was 18, his poems were read publicly by actor Edouard de Max and his theater friends, effectively giving Cocteau a formal introduction to that circle of society. Cocteau went on to become an active member of the Paris art scene and was associated with Cubists, Fauvists, and Futurists. He met with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, and Marcel Proust, published volumes of poems, wrote plays and ballets, and evolved into a leading member of the French avant-garde.
A free-spirited man very much ahead of his time, Cocteau never hid his sexuality and even wrote a book, entitled Opium: Journal of Drug Rehabilitation, in which he recounted the experience of his recovery from opium addiction in 1929. His vibrant life was full of lovers, associates, and friends, among them French poet Raymond Radiguet, Jean Desbordes, Russian princess Natalie Paley, Coco Chanel, actor Jean Marais, and Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Though he was a multidisciplinary artist, he insisted on calling himself a poet and classified the variety of his works as such: plays were theatrical poems, essays were critical poems, drawings were graphic poems, and so on.
Among his myriad creations he is best known for his novels Le Grand Écart (1923), Le Livre blanc (1928), and Les Enfants Terribles (1929); the stage plays La Voix Humaine (1930), La Machine Infernale (1934), Les Parents Terribles (1938), La Machine à écrire (1941), and L'Aigle à deux têtes (1946); and the films The Blood of a Poet (1930), Les Parents Terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Orpheus (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1960). Over the many decades of his successful career he was commander of the Legion of Honor, Member of the Mallarmé Academy, German Academy (Berlin), American Academy, Académie Française, The Royal Academy of Belgium, and the Mark Twain Academy, Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival, Honorary President of the France-Hungary Association and President of the Jazz Academy and of the Academy of the Disc.
Cocteau died of a heart attack the day after his friend, French singer Edith Piaf. His exceptionally diverse artistic legacy inspired countless artists, filmmakers, writers, and composers and continues to do so today via the Musée Jean Cocteau in Menton, France.
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