Jean Cocteau's reputation has always suffered from the scope of his wildly varied activities. Multi-talented, artistically inclined chameleons are not always taken seriously, and his admission to the Académie française wastherefore a surprise to many. Yet whoever considers his free fall through the art world will see how seriously Cocteau operated. He has doubtlessly proved himself to be a poet first and foremost, but his entrance into the world of the avant-garde took place in a different field. This Parisian son of a man of independent means grew up in an artistic but conventional environment connected mainly to the music and theatre world. The young Cocteau therefore spent more time in the wings than in school, leading to his expulsion from the lycée-Condorcet in 1904.
Renewal and death
Cocteau's first work was conventional: articles, drawings, a magazine produced together with the interesting printer-poet Bernouard, three collections of poetry, and three trivial works, according to his own later judgment. Meanwhile he grew acquainted with a new world of Cubism, Picasso, Satie's music, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, for which he designed a few sets. He finally saw the light in 1913 during the premiere of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. That very year, Le Potomak came into being: a happy combination of prose and drawings that was to become a turning point in his life. The ballet Parade (1917), on which he collaborated with Satie and Picasso, also became a memorable theatrical scandal, similar to Sacre. From then on, it would be hard to keep up with Cocteau's activities.
He was attuned to novelties, and loved to warm himself by the fire of artistic scandals. His adventures with stunt pilot and wartime flier Roland Garros gave extra status to the modernist collection Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (1920), while his collaboration with Darius Milhaud yielded the pantomime play Le boeuf sur le toit (1920). Raymond Radiguet, whose untimely death in 1923 shocked Cocteau deeply, led him back to conventional paths via a detour of opium and religion. A collection of poetry like Plain-chant (1923) is an example of this. Cocteau became a fashionable figure, but he also maintained his position as poet, novelist (Les enfants terribles, 1929), playwright, theoretician, painter, and even a near-convert of Jacques Maritain, a philosopher whose work was quite popular in those days. Cocteau's rather fashionable preference for antique motifs in modern forms is clearly expressed in his mature work as a playwright and filmmaker (the Orpheus films). All this brilliant spirit of innovation - first find, then search, was his motto - obscured a growing preoccupation with death. On 11 October 1963 his good friend Edith Piaf passed away. Cocteau died on the same day.
His scandalous reputation was caused in part by the fact that he was quite frank about his homosexuality. Cocteau's drawings were explicit. He produced eighteen drawings in 1930 for the anonymously published erotic story Le livre blanc. He also wrote the preface, in which he states: 'They say that Le livre blanc was written by me', nor does he deny this. He says no more than that the author seems to be familiar with his novel Le grand écart, and that he obviously appreciates Cocteau's work. And no matter what nice things Cocteau could say about this book, 'even if it was my own book', he would never attach his name to it, because it was an autobiography, and his autobiography was to be even more exceptional. In short, he went to great lengths to establish himself as the book's author while simultaneously denying this claim.
The first edition of Le livre blanc appeared in 1928, under the copyright of Maurice Sachs and Jacques Bonjean in Paris. Pascal Pia, the author of a bibliography of the erotic collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, wrote that the editors received the book without its creator’s name or address. But Pia recognized the names of Sachs and Bonjean in the initials on the title page, making this an official publication of Les Quatre Chemins, which had already published another book by Cocteau that same year: Le mystère laïc. (Cocteau had a hard time with Sachs; Sachs had for instance sold Cocteau's library.) Both gentlemen also played dumb by claiming not to know the author, while the colophon informs us that 10 copies had been reserved for the author, while the total edition consisted of only 31 copies! Pia's suspicions were justified, and after publication, neither Sachs nor Cocteau were very discrete about their involvement. The second edition followed in 1930 under a faked imprint: Editions du Signe, printed on 10 May 1930 by Ducros and Colas in Paris in an edition of 450 copies. The drawings were hand-coloured by M.B. Armington.
Cocteau wrote Le livre blanc in 1927 in Chablis, where he was staying with Jean Desbordes, the successor to Cocteau's great love. Cocteau's drawings have been described as obscenely pious. They are established by quick, flowing lines, partially erotic and often sultry, featuring classical elements such as busts and centaurs. Erotic images were popular articles in France, where they were sold under the counter; people were extra careful about homosexual erotica. Cocteau described his first sexual experiences in Le livre blanc: his excitement upon seeing a naked peasant boy on horseback and two naked young gypsies on his father's estate. He also wrote about his father, in whom he recognized a homosexual inclination. Some scenes in Le livre blanc refer to Cocteau's love for Desbordes, others to the adventures of Maurice Sachs. Neither man was to survive World War II: Desbordes was tortured to death by the Gestapo, while Maurice Sachs played an enigmatic double role during the war, and subsequently disappeared.
|Description:||Le livre blanc / [Jean Cocteau] ; préc. d'un front. et accompagné de 17 dess. de Jean Cocteau. - Paris : Éditions du Signe, 1930. -  p. (68 p.,  pl.) : ill. ; 30 cm|
|Printer:||Ducros and Colas (Paris)
M.B. Armington (colouring)
|This copy:||Number 89 of 402 on Arches|
|Bibliography:||Bénézit 3-744 ; Carteret V-51 ; In liefde verzameld 136 ; Monod 2912|
|Shelf-mark:||Koopm A 393|
- Claude Arnaud, Jean Cocteau. Paris, Gallimard, 2003
- Jean-Michel Belle, Les folles années de Maurice Sachs. Paris, Grasset, 1979
- Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
- Henry Gidel, Jean Cocteau. Paris, Flammarion, 1997
- Monique Lange, Cocteau: Prince sans royaume. Paris, Lattès, 1989
- Milorad, 'Introduction', in: Jean Cocteau, Le livre blanc, suivi de quatorze textes érotiques inédits. Paris, Persona, 1981
- Pascal Pia, Les livres de l'enfer: bibliographie critique des ouvrages érotiques dans leurs différentes éditions du XVIe siècle à nos jours. Paris, Fayard, 1998
- Henri Raczymow, Maurice Sachs ou Les travaux forcés de la frivolité. Paris, Gallimard, 1988
Frontispiece by Jean Cocteau
Page  with facsimile of Jean Cocteau's manuscript
Page : illustration by Jean Cocteau
Page : illustration by Jean Cocteau
Page : illustration by Jean Cocteau