PABLO PICASSO is one of those artists—and he is perhaps more so than any other—who have shaped the modern sensibility. He and a few of his poet friends have altered our way of seeing and comprehending the world, and even our way of living. Around Picasso and around the contact which was established between him and men like Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob at first, and later Jean Cocteau and Paul Eluard, there existed a veritable debauchery of artistic plots and fantasies and experimentations.
As almost always at the initial stage of such discoveries, a farcical atmosphere pervaded the intellectual and artistic fashions promulgated by Picasso and his friends. This tone of farce, of playfulness, is precisely what the general public detests the most in poetic movements. Cubism, fauvism, Negro art, dadaism, surrealism, the taste for serialized novels (romans feuilletons), and the theatre of the absurd, all emerged from an ambiency of jollification and mystification.
Picasso himself has always been reticent about speaking of himself and his work. The poets, among whom Cocteau holds first place, have not been reticent in analyzing the aesthetics of Picasso. What is known about the man Picasso, is due in large part to the writings of the poets. The role which Apollinaire and Cocteau have played for Picasso was formerly played by Baudelaire for Daumier and Delacroix and Constantin Guys. When Apollinaire spoke, he represented the group of poets and artists surrounding Picasso between 1903 and 1914, a group referred to now as la bande à Picasso. They were impoverished, but they heeded Apollinaire’s firm word of counsel to love their century and to look upon the twentieth as far more exciting than the nineteenth. Il faut aimer son époque. Notre 20e siècle est bien plus passionnant que le 19e.
In the early years of the century Picasso’s studio, at 13, rue Ravignan, in Montmartre, was the center for a group of artists and writers who shared poverty and ambitions. Apollinaire, Picasso, André Salmon, and Max Jacob formed a unified group destined to revolutionize arts and letters in France. Picasso was first proclaimed a master by the poets. The elflike, ironic charm of Max Jacob bears affinities with Cocteau’s art. Max possessed something of the prodigious virtuosity of Cocteau.
Picasso, Apollinaire, and Jacob were approximately the same age. At the beginning of their careers, when they were friends for the first time, they lived through years of poverty when they worried over the same preoccupations and the same kinds of ambition. Picasso’s friendship with Jean Cocteau came a bit later and lasted longer, because it lasted until Cocteau’s death in 1963. Cocteau often said that his meeting with Picasso was the most important of his life. The Ode à Pablo Picasso and the essay on the painter, one of the texts included in Le Rappel à l’ordre, as well as the many allusions scattered throughout the work, prove the influence, or rather the singular presence of Picasso in the thought and the aesthetic preoccupations of Jean Cocteau.
From the time of the First World War, about 1916, when he first met Picasso, Cocteau’s activity continued unremittingly in all domains. Especially during the twenties and thirties, a prodigiously fertile period in French culture, Cocteau participated in a very intense artistic life in the capital. If his narrie became known to a wide public, he himself was understood by very few. Among those few, Pablo Picasso counted in a special way.
Picasso and Max Jacob understood better than others Cocteau’s personal drama, which was often disguised by the exterior spectacle of his life. This impression is confirmed by these few lines of an unpublished letter of Max Jacob about Cocteau.
We can never do enough to remove Jean’s name from Paris society where he is so badly understood. Jean has the misfortune of being a man of wit. Some do not forgive him for this, and others pretend to find his wit his only charm. The truth is that his wit is always dazzling and conceals the other good attributes of the man. People are delighted to use this dazzling wit to conceal Jean’s virtues, talents and gifts. . . . We must speak the truth. The truth is that Jean is a very great poet and, as I see it, the only poet we have had since Apollinaire’s death. . . .
Picasso always admired the boldness with which Cocteau carried out his experimentations. The private asceticism by which Cocteau lived made of him a free man in the fullest sense of the word. The freedom he exemplified involving a life of considerable solitude, it provoked that “difficulty of being” which Cocteau described in his most profound book. It explains also the constant presence of death in his work. His understanding of death, his impatient desire not to be late with himself, his fear of losing a single instant, explain at least to some degree Cocteau’s fecundity and his prodigious vitality.
One day, soon after his first meeting with Picasso, Cocteau proposed to the painter to create a ballet for Serge de Diaghileff. This was to be Parade. We are in 1916. The eminent impresario of Les Ballets Russes took with him to Rome all of the collaborators in the work except Erik Satie, who refused to leave Paris. Cocteau was in charge of the score and the book. Picasso constructed the models for the stage set. Cocteau invented a kind of choreography. Feverishly they rehearsed in Léonide Massine’s room. Between times, Picasso sketched portraits of his friends.
The war was still being fought at the time of the effervescence of this new spirit in which poetry, music, painting, and dance collaborated. What will be called l’après-guerre, the period after the war, made its start with Parade. Slowly, during the decade of the twenties, Cocteau’s and Picasso’s prestige grew and showered Paris with dazzling lights.
In 1917, Parade was a public scandal. Concerning that moment, Cocteau will say later: “From then on, I was to know only scandals, the notoriety of scandals, the luck and the bad luck of scandals.” He often meditated on this aspect of his destiny. He returned to it and discussed it in his reception speech at the Académie Française.
Cocteau often referred to the two encounters at the beginning of his career which had a lasting influence on his life of an artist: the meetings with Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso. Le Sacre du printemps affected him deeply. Stravinsky, first, taught him that unless art insults the habits of art, it remains a mere game. He quickly saw the many ways in which Picasso insulted the habits of art. The examples of Stravinsky and Picasso urged Cocteau to explain himself and to study the mechanics of his art.
Between Montmartre, where Max Jacob and Juan Gris lived, and Montparnasse with its café La Rotonde and Modigliani’s studio, there was a constant traveling back and forth, supervised by Apollinaire, dominated by Picasso, and minutely observed by Jean Cocteau. This was the moment when stories about Cocteau, which quickly turned into legends, began to circulate. Most of them were absurd. Cocteau often said he was unable to recognize himself in the stories he heard. But even when the screen of legends is removed, a celebrated figure remains enigmatic. Cocteau often remarked that the artist is condemned to live as a phantom.
Picasso and Cocteau both preserved something from their childhood. And nothing is harder to preserve than one’s childhood, its mystery and its wild cruelty. Almost all children, between the ages of five and ten, have talent for drawing. After that, in most cases, the talent is lost. In explaining this phenomenon, Cocteau used words that are almost untranslatable when he said: “What first carries children away ends by exiling them.” (Ce qui emportait les enfants les déporte.) A child’s genius is changed into a questionable talent, but the real painter rescues the chance granted to him as a child. Throughout his life, Cocteau did considerable drawing and painting, but for a long time he was afraid of painting. Picasso urged him to do this and made him feel ashamed of his fears. Many French poets have had a highly developed sense of graphic art and have left behind them drawings as additional works. Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine are examples of such poets. The three poets who were closest to Picasso: Apollinaire, Jacob, and Cocteau, were admirable graphic artists.
Cocteau’s principal text on Picasso, published in the volume Le Rappel à l’ordre, counts today as one of the finest testimonials to the genius of the painter and as one of the most penetrating critical statements on the character of the creative genius in general. The essay is not easy to follow because Cocteau expresses himself as a poet. In it he speaks of the Muses as demanding ladies, accustomed to marked attentions. Often Cocteau observed Picasso trying to get beyond their domination, to move outside of their dance (leur ronde), as he says, but then Picasso would begin drawing like everyone else. So he returned quickly (so Cocteau reassures us) blindfolded and took up again his central position which is exactly within the dance of the Muses.
Cocteau looked upon Picasso as a Spaniard who had appropriated some of the oldest French recipes. These recipes are the works of Chardin, Poussin, and Corot. This Spaniard casts a spell over objects and faces that follow him wherever he wishes to go. First, Picasso tries out his spell on whatever is close at hand: a newspaper, a glass, a bottle, a pipe, a package of tobacco, a playing card, a guitar. In speaking of Picasso’s art and Georges Braque’s also, Cocteau claims that they debauch simple objects.
Picasso’s earliest friends in Paris were Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, André Salmon, and Maurice Raynal. Cocteau met Picasso a few years later and has written especially of the painter in his relationship with the theatre, as stage designer. The two men first knew one another during the rather austere period of cubism. Only the Spanish guitar and objects that are found on a table were permitted painters at that time, according to Cocteau. It was a crime to paint a stage set, especially one for the Ballets Russes. In accepting Cocteau’s proposition for Parade, Picasso scandalized the café de la Rotonde. To put on Parade, Cocteau and Picasso had to join Diaghileff in Rome, and the cubist code forbade any journey other than the Nord-Sud subway in Paris between la Place des Abbesses in Montmartre and le boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse.
Picasso appropriated the theatre as he had everything else. The night before the opening (la répétition générale) of Antigone, in December 1922, Cocteau and his actors were seated in the orchestra of Dullin’s theatre, L’Atelier. On the stage there were openings on the left and right. There was an opening in the middle. Over this opening Cocteau had hung masks of women, boys, and old men. It was necessary to paint the surface of the panel. Picasso walked up and down looking at it. He began by rubbing a piece of red chalk over the panel which made it look like marble. Then he took a bottle of ink and traced a few elegant motifs. Suddenly he blackened a few spots and three columns appeared. The appearance of these columns was so abrupt, so unexpected, that Cocteau and his actors broke out with applause.
Later that evening when the two friends were walking in the street, Cocteau asked Picasso if he had planned on the emergence of the columns or if he himself had been surprised. Picasso replied that he had been surprised by them, but that one calculates often without realizing it, and that he had invented the column in the same way that the Greeks had discovered it.
When Jean Cocteau wrote for Paris-Midi his articles entitled Carte Blanche, he spoke of artists who were not known by the Paris public of that moment, 1920. The names which kept appearing in his chronicle were: Derain, Braque, Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Erik Satie, and the group of composers called Les Six. These men usually refused publicly to take their art seriously, to speak seriously about their art. They were especially distrustful of what might be called an explanation or an interpretation of their work. Their critical statements were almost always aphorisms, elliptical phrases, and condensations.
One day an American lady asked Cocteau to take her to Picasso’s studio. She was the kind of woman who took delight in studying a variety of subjects: lessons in boxing, dance, gymnastics, singing, book-binding, history. She had once hired a teacher to help her read Mallarmé. Cocteau wondered if she had chosen him as teacher of cubism. Finally he refused to take her to Picasso, since he was well aware of how much the painter dreaded such encounters, and how useless he believed all explanations concerning art to be.
But one day the American lady told Cocteau, in a tone of triumph, that the painter Zuloaga had taken her to Picasso’s studio. Cocteau asked her what had transpired. She explained that since Zuloaga was one of Picasso’s oldest friends, the painter had made a clean confession. “Confession of what?” Cocteau asked. “That his cubism is a farce!”
For the publication of his play Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, in 1924, Cocteau wrote a preface which is really a manifesto, that today is still of great interest. It is an example of the critical texts about the new art in the century, those texts that are difficult to read, and that are rich in ideas and intuitions. According to this text, Cocteau’s position did not conform with traditional disciplines, but it was in perfect conformity with Picasso’s discipline. It was opposed to the esoteric and the mysterious, but was bent upon rehabilitating the commonplace. This work, both the preface and the text itself, was a new scandal, provoked by those who believed that the Eiffel Tower had been insulted. In Le Coq et l’Arlequin, Cocteau’s aesthetics are still more apparent, as well as the significant affirmations concerning the morality of his poetics. In this essay is found the celebrated sentence on poets, in which Cocteau claims we shelter an angel whom we are constantly scandalizing. We should be the guardians of this angel. (Nous abritons un ange que nous choquons sans cesse. Nous devons être les gardiens de cet ange.) The artist is thus defined by Cocteau as being a man inhabited by another being.
Each element of the astonishingly varied work of Cocteau helps us to understand better the total work, and to understand better the period and the work of the artist friends such as Picasso. Cocteau as graphic artist has his place beside Cocteau the critic, the aesthetician, and the creator of new styles in the theatre and films. His book Dessins (1923) is dedicated to Picasso, and this dedication reveals an influence, although it is difficult to tell which was the stronger influenee, the painter or the poet. It would seem that Picasso had contracted some kind of debt to Cocteau who, in 1917, traveled with him to Rome. Picasso’s first “Greek” drawings and those in the style of Ingres possibly came after similar drawings of Cocteau. But such a question is vain and useless. It is more than evident, however, that Cocteau did not escape the marked influence of the Spaniard from Malaga whom he, as deliberately as Apollinaire did, placed in the foremost rank of contemporary artists.
In turning the pages of the album Dessins, crammed with surprises and variety, one is struck by the spirit, the tone of a period whose aspirations and whose taste are exemplified in Les Ballets Russes, Le Sacre du printemps, and Picasso’s paintings. Somewhat later, in 1934, Cocteau published a series of illustrations for his novel: Soixante dessins pour Les Enfants terribles. These retell the novel graphically. In these drawings, Cocteau’s art is closer to Christian Bérard’s than to Picasso’s. According to Cocteau, the book of pictures is intended to illuminate the literary text. Paradoxically, each is independent of the other, and each merges indistinguishably with the other.
It is difficult to separate Picasso from his poet friends, especially when one has in mind the extent of his influence on his century. Only today are we beginning to realize the incomparable richness of Picasso’s Paris years. When Apollinaire died in the midst of the barbaric joy of the Armistice, the art world was severed in two. On one side, under the banner of Order: Claudel, Gide, and Valéry resumed and continued their work. On the other side was what seemed to be the Disorder of dadaism, futurism, and surrealism. Cocteau found his equilibrium mid-way between the order of Claudel and the disorder of Breton. But the lightness of his weight and his dexterity made those who watched, apprehensive. Would he fall?
Picasso and Cocteau, more than the other artists, retained through the years a youthfulness of spirit. Most poets and painters give the impression of pursuing the Muses, but, because of their determination, never quite catch them. But the Muses seemed to favor Cocteau and Picasso, and pursued them. Whenever one or the other was apprehended by the Muses, he would escape and this escape would be manifested in a new work or in a new painting.
To describe this type of artist, the image of a spring-finder (sourcier) has been used. And spring-finders are rare. They are men who, by means of a stick or a magic wand, discover fountains and springs. Cocteau’s pen and Picasso’s brush do bear resemblances to magic wands. Whenever they held them in their hands, refreshing water gushed forth in which objects were bathed. When the objects emerged from the bath, they appeared on the pages of the poet and on the canvasses of the painter.
They often chose simple objects of today, but they alone possessed the secret of endowing these contemporary objects with an ancient mythological character. Such power of renovation is a further sign of youthfulness. Cocteau and Picasso were involved with most of the vital artistic movements of the twentieth century, but they always remained independent of these schools. This will toward independence accounts for the unusual place they occupy in modern poetry and modern painting.