“For now more than ever, perhaps, one is likely to encounter glimpses of Cocteau’s quick, airy grace, and far more likely to do so while scrolling through Instagram than strolling through a gallery.”
When Pierre Chanel wrote in Jean Cocteau and the French Scene that Cocteau’s style, with its ‘deceptive, free, quick, airy grace… [was] so inimitable that he has had no followers’, he unwittingly proves the outmodedness of the book to a contemporary reader. For now more than ever, perhaps, one is likely to encounter glimpses of this quick, airy grace, and far more likely to do so while scrolling through Instagram than strolling through a gallery. Spearheaded by a new generation of illustrators and interior designers whose work is disseminated largely through the social media platform, the pervasive influence of Cocteau’s distinctive aesthetic, its economy of line and its pursuit of classical ideals of youth and beauty, merits an examination of both the work itself and why these seemingly conservative artistic goals have retained (or perhaps regained) their importance for Instagram’s overwhelmingly millennial audience.
To understand the reappearance of Cocteau’s style, it is necessary to briefly chart its appearance in the first place- Chanel was right at the time, at least, to note the initial lack of stylistically similar artists, and Cocteau’s work has often been dismissed as an aberration in twentieth century art insofar as it conformed to the conventions of no recognisable movement. What little criticism has focused on his graphic art has tended to emphasise, unflatteringly, his proximity to Picasso in explaining his interest in the possibilities of line drawing and an aesthetic of simplicity. It has equally been explained away by characterising Cocteau as a meeting point of various artistic doctrines that recurred throughout his lifetime, from the essentially symbolist leanings that dominated the art scene of his youth to the modernism of Picasso and the Europe-wide ‘return to order’ (of which Cocteau was a vocal proponent) that called for a new classicism in the arts in response to the horrors of the First World War. While all of this did undoubtedly inform Cocteau’s aesthetic, these comparisons also define him as something he was not- that is, a fine artist, and a minor one at that. Rather, and perhaps fittingly for an artist almost universally classified as an unrepentant narcissist, it is to Cocteau’s own writings one can turn to better trace the emergence of the style. His Paris Album, dedicated to chronicling his formative years, dedicates whole chapters to the aesthetic experience of fashion, the circus, and the skating rink, and the earliest expression of awe at an artwork comes as he describes seeing ‘an exquisite caricature by Cappiello’, poster artist and caricaturist, who ‘apart from achieving perfect likeness his Japanese pencil endowed actresses with the beauty of flora or fauna, tigers or orchids’. Such biographical anecdotes attest far more to his sometimes-noted enthusiasm for ‘minor arts’ than his dubious placing in the canon of fine art, and as such his aesthetic itself- already drawing on the ephemera of the everyday- does not seem as alien to a democratised social platform such as Instagram as it may first appear.
Illustration by Rochelle Asquith
If this provides an explanation it does not provide a reason- for either Cocteau arriving at this aesthetic or for popular designers such as Luke Edward Hall, Robin Lucas, or Wayne Pate rediscovering it in the twenty-first century. Cocteau’s appreciation of the beauty of the ephemerally glimpsed, as an artwork lost in an endless newsfeed of images is today, does not merely has its roots in the everyday but integrates into it too, as ‘things whose end is contemplation and appreciation… [and] reward even the most casual notice’. Another common criticism of Cocteau’s work (and illustration in general, relegated to the so-called minor arts despite its current flourishing online on social media platforms) views this as a shortcoming on Cocteau’s part, arguing the work has no depth and is too concerned with the superficial, unfashionable quality of pure beauty. There is certainly some truth in this assertion. One could study Cocteau’s most recognisable contribution to graphic art- the Orphic profile of handsome young men, simply and beautifully rendered in a handful of lines and endlessly reiterated throughout his career- and one’s understanding of its meaning and purpose is unlikely to change greatly from the first second to the last minute of looking. It is beautiful; we find it attractive; it is, simply, nice to look at. As already noted, this was unfashionable during Cocteau’s lifetime, the age of Duchamp and Dada, when a revolt against beauty was an affirmation of one’s avant-garde glamour and is perhaps more unfashionable today. Worth quoting at some length on this matter is Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art, an impassioned tirade sustained for nearly two hundred pages against what Kuspit believes to be the rise of ‘anti-aesthetic’ or ‘post-aesthetic’ art under postmodernism. Whether or not one agrees with Kuspit that what seems like the finalisation of a shift towards the conceptual over (to borrow from Duchamp) the retinal amounts to the end of art itself (it almost certainly doesn’t), his argument in favour of reversing this sea-change remains remarkably convincing in places. “High art”, he suggests, becomes increasingly incomprehensible and elitist the further it moves from the democratising principle of beauty, and fails to speak to any but the privileged gallery-going few. He finds something particularly ugly in the ideology he perceives in contemporary art’s attempts to look more and more like real life- such works ‘fail to realise that beauty is the ultimate protest against ugliness… the inability to imagine beauty is a sign of the creative inadequacy of post-aesthetic modern art’. At his most scathing, Kuspit presents us with a vision of an art world in which ‘the work of art becomes a bully pulpit, and the artist tries to bully the spectator into believing what the artist believes. He becomes a self-righteous bully preaching to us (or rather at us) about what we already know- the ugliness and injustice of the world’. It is, admittedly, hard not to feel a little vicious satisfaction reading this. But moreover, in its implications it suggests a compelling line of argument as to why Cocteau’s aesthetic is currently exercising the influence it is online. If ‘post-aesthetic’ works do fail to speak to the vast majority of their viewers in any meaningful way, it is therefore left to the pursuit of beauty to fill this void.
Illustration by Rochelle Asquith
The irony is, of course, that the conservatism inherent in this dressing-down of contemporary art should theoretically be entirely at odds with the fast-food consumption of images Instagram permits, which threatens to trivialise art. But there is nothing trivial about it. In one of the more comprehensive, if slightly eccentric, assessments of Cocteau’s style- Lydia Crowson’s The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau– the creation of images that are widely available and immediately appealing takes on its own philosophical grandeur. Tackling what she acknowledges to be one of the more surprising facets of Cocteau’s writings, his obsessive revisiting of Nietzschean thought, Crowson’s Cocteau becomes a tragically heroic figure, coming face to face with the void and attempting to protect us against it through creating art that provides ‘a sort of communal experience which momentarily frees the individual from solitude and from the burdens of his daily life’. Cocteau’s art ‘represented neither a proud defiance of the absurd nor deep joy in spite of it, but whistling in the dark to combat fear’, we are told, and there is something both seductive and compelling in this understanding of what his art means for its viewers. It is certainly an understanding that is invited by the aesthetic of Cocteau and his followers too. Littered once more throughout his autobiographical writings we find pointers as to how Cocteau understood art- ‘I hope to be read by people who remain children in spite of everything’, he tells us, ‘but alas, the people who wish to live as warmly protected in this credulous fairyland as in their mother’s womb are hurt by our never-wracking age, with its fidgety untidiness, twitching lights…’. Here we see the two states to which Cocteau wished to escape- the pre-modern, and that of the child, both suggested by his style. Its sculptural neoclassicism attests to the former, and remains prominent in the appearances of Orpheus, St Sebastian, and the like in Luke Edward Hall’s work. As for providing an escape into childhood, one needs to look a little closer. The simplicity of the aesthetic is an obvious indicator, but on a deeper level Cocteau’s aesthetic arguably encourages its viewer to inhabit both the enchanted gaze of the child and the longing gaze of the nostalgic adult. Cocteau’s reminiscences of his own childhood detail how ‘children watch grown-ups, by means of bribes, on all fours, behind kitchen doors and on the stairs, with eyes that accept nothing expect poetic intensity’, and the airy, idealised nature of his work suggests this viewpoint of mysterious stolen glimpses. Cocteau’s aesthetic transports the viewer, albeit briefly, to a world that retains its magic through the transience of the moment it suggests and through its resistance to being comprehended on any level beyond that of its beautiful surface. Simultaneously, this same brevity, coupled with the sparseness of the detail, suggests the gaze of memory, selectively remembering fleeting moments and idealising that which lies beyond reach. It is no mistake, then, that Cocteau’s aesthetic should reappear on Instagram today. His horror of the ‘untidiness’ of modern life could scarcely seem more relevant, and the return to the classical past that marked the art of the interwar period was built on a similar instinctive desire for beauty in the face of a paralysing uncertainty brought about not only by the horror of violence but by the economic and political insecurity of the period. These concerns, it barely seems worth noting, are of course menacingly prescient to a young, contemporary audience viewing art in the age of Trump, Brexit, the fallout of the Iraq War, and devastating austerity policies. Not only was Cocteau’s art thus never the property of “high art”, and so at home in the democratised world of fleeting images Instagram represents, but the driving forces behind its aesthetic- a longing for simplicity, safety, and beauty- have either always been present beyond the art world or have become deeply important again, providing brief moments of solace and clarity.
Perhaps Cocteau himself puts it best. ‘I invented the disappearance of the skyscraper and the reappearance of the rose. This was misunderstood as meaning a return to the rose. Exactly the opposite’, he told his audience at the Collège de France in 1923. Typical of Cocteau, the remark prizes beauty over clarity, but it seems to suggest that the rose- the symbol of eternal beauty, juxtaposed with the vulgarity of everyday modern life of the skyscraper- never disappeared, and is never as static as a reliance on a classical past would suggest. And thus, it has reappeared today, speaking to a new audience, utilising a new platform, and- to use Crowson’s image- whistling the same tune in a new darkness.
WORDS BY SAM LOVE
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ROCHELLE ASQUITH
 Chanel, Pierre. “A Thousand Flashes of Genius.” Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville, 1984, 112
 Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover: Published for the U of New Hampshire by the UP of New England, 1978, 1
 Ziolkowski, Theodore. Classicism of the Twenties: Art, Music, and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2015, 95
 Winegarten, Renee. “In Pursuit of Cocteau.” The American Scholar 58.3 (1989), 436
 Ziolkowski, Classicism, 1
 Cocteau, Jean. Paris Album: 1900-1914. London: Comet, 1987, 35
 Crowson, The Esthetic, 19
 Gass, William H. “The Baby or the Boticelli.” Finding a Form. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2009, 291-2
 Danto, Arthur Coleman. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago Ill.: Open Court, 2006, 48
 Kuspit, Donald B. The End of Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2008, 2
 Ibid, 31
 Ibid, 37
 Crowson, The Esthetic, 3
 Ibid, 110-11
 Ibid, 172-3
 Cocteau, Paris Album, 39
 Ibid, 29
 Cocteau, Jean. A Call to Order. New York: Haskell House, 1974, 194
Chanel, Pierre. “A Thousand Flashes of Genius.” Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville, 1984
Cocteau, Jean. A Call to Order. New York: Haskell House, 1974
Cocteau, Jean. Paris Album: 1900-1914. London: Comet, 1987
Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover: Published for the U of New Hampshire by the UP of New England, 1978
Danto, Arthur Coleman. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago Ill.: Open Court, 2006
Gass, William H. “The Baby or the Botticelli.” Finding a Form. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2009
Kuspit, Donald B. The End of Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2008
Winegarten, Renee. “In Pursuit of Cocteau.” The American Scholar 58.3 (1989)
Ziolkowski, Theodore. Classicism of the Twenties: Art, Music, and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2015