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Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau was born on July 5, 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. At the age of nineteen he published his first collection of poems, La Lampe d’Aladin, and subsequently came in contact with the main figures of the Parisian Belle Époque. Among these was Russian ballet director Sergei Diaghilev, with whom Cocteau collaborated in 1917 as a set designer for Parade, a ballet that merged music, poetry, and figurative art. The ballet, which Apollinaire described as “a kind of surrealism,” became extremely influential to the development of modern art.
After the war, in 1918 Cocteau forged a strong friendship with the future poet and writer, Raymond Radiguet. Only fifteen years old at the time, Radiguet’s influence would prove instrumental to the art and life of Jean Cocteau. Following Radiguet’s premature death in 1923, Cocteau became dependent on opium and was subsequently hospitalized. During this time, he wrote one of his most important novels, Les Enfant terribles (1929). In the early 1930s, Cocteau developed an interest in cinema, directing a number of films, including Le Sang d’un poète (1930). He also wrote a play entitled La Machine infernale (1934), based on the myth of Oedipus. After a period of hiatus, he returned once more to cinema, directing La Belle et la Bête with Jean Marais in 1946, and L’Aigle à deux têtes and Les Parents terribles—both adapted from two of his earlier plays—between 1947 and 1948.
Cocteau’s life-long passion for mythology is also reflected in a series of pictorial decorations he executed in the 1950s for the Chapel of Saint-Pierre in Villefranche, near Menton, on the Côte d’Azur. In 1955 he became a member of the Académie Française and the Académie Royale of Belgium. In 1959 he released one of his most original graphic works, an album titled Gondole des morts, published in Italy by Scheiwiller. The album was edited by Cocteau his friend, the artist Fabrizio Clerici, who provided the illustrations for the 1963 edition of Cocteau's play, Les Chevaliers de la Table ronde (1937). Jean Cocteau died on October 11, 1963, in Milly-la-forêt.