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Cocteau In the Hamster Cage

photo: hamster walkway, centre pompidou

The Pompidou's 'hamster' walkway.

Paris Life - No. 24

by Laurel Avery

Paris:- Friday, 7. November 2003:- The only work of Jean Cocteau's that I had ever had any real awareness of was his film, 'Beauty and the Beast,' which I saw when I was sixteen years old. It made a huge impression on me and has remained a favorite throughout the years.

However, I never knew anything about the man who created the film, so when I saw that there was a huge retrospective of his work on exhibit at the Centre Pompidou, I figured I would check it out.

I had never been inside the Pompidou, having been more than a little put off by the architecture of a place that reminds me of a cross between an industrial warehouse and a hamster cage.

A series of five escalators transports you to the top floor where the special exhibits are located. The view fromphoto: interior, expo cocteau there is not for those who suffer from acrophobia, but it does provide a spectacular 180-degree vista of Paris from which you can see everything from the Panthéon to Sacre Coeur, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I happened to be there at sunset, and was reminded of what an incredibly beautiful city I'm living in.

The exhibition area in the interior.

The first image you encounter upon entering the exhibit is the surreal photo of Cocteau with six arms, looking like some Hindu deity. It epitomizes the life of a man who possessed a multitude of talents.

Cocteau was a poet, artist, writer and filmmaker who collaborated with some of the most important artists of his generation, among whom were Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie.

While he dabbled in all of these diverse arts, however, I didn't get the impression that he really masteredphoto: view from pompidou any of them, certainly not to the extent that his friends did. I had the feeling that he was one of those people who was famous for being famous - with the exception of a couple of his film masterpieces.

The view from Pompidou.

However, I've always been of the opinion that, even if a person only creates one masterful thing during their lifetime that has a positive effect on the world around them, their time on the planet was not wasted. Cocteau was certainly one of those people.

The exhibit contains drawings, poems, film clips, paintings and mixed media pieces done both by himself and others.

The exhibit contains scores of self-portraits done over the years, but some of the most striking were the ones where he is faceless. He was a man with a large public persona who, I got the impression, really had no idea who he ultimately was.

I felt that some of his best work was his series of erotic pen-and-ink drawings housed in a separate gallery opposite a brilliant red wall. Apparently, after he was expelled from school at the age of fifteen he ran off to Marseille and lived in its red light district for a time before beingphoto: poster cocteau returned to his uncle's care by the police. The experience certainly must have made an impression. There is a confidence to these drawings that is lacking in much of his other work.

Cocteau often used images of masks and mirrors, as if he were simultaneously repelled and attracted by his own image, and the exhibit itself uses mirrors in a creative fashion. I was surprised a number of times to look up and see myself standing there in a mirror, like another object in the exhibit.

Self-reflection was important throughout Cocteau's life, and all these varied artistic expressions served as his way of discovering the real person behind the man in the mirror.


Jean Cocteau - 'Sur le Fil du Siècle,' is presented in a big exhibition continuing until Monday, 5. January 2004. From 11:00 to 21:00 daily except on Tuesday. At the Centre Georges Pompidou, Place Georges Pompidou, Paris 4. Métro: Rambuteau. InfoTel.: 01 44 78 12 33.

Photos and text, Laurel Avery © 2003
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