In Venice, a major exhibition on Jean Cocteau, brilliant juggler of art
Racconti da MArte
The first large-scale Italian retrospective honouring one of the most versatile and revolutionary authors of the last century is titled Jean Cocteau.
The Juggler’s Revenge. Presented at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice until 16 September 2024, the exhibition traces Cocteau’s career and his tendency to elude labels and definitions. Over one hundred and fifty works ‒ from drawings to graphic works, from jewellery to tapestries to films ‒ offer a glimpse into the imagination and artistic practice of a character who made history. We talked about it with the curator Kenneth E. Silver, an authoritative expert on Cocteau.

Poet, novelist, critic, visual artist. Jean Cocteau was a concentration of creativity that cannot be easily labeled. What aspects of his personality are highlighted by the exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice?
We’re highlighting his extraordinary range in Jean Cocteau. The Juggler’s Revenge, with a special emphasis on the brilliance of Cocteau’s visual ideas. The artistic manifestations of his queerness and of his opium addition (both ecstatic and agonized) are also important in our presentation.

Among the works on display, which ones best summarize Cocteau’s poetics?
In the exhibition, we’re showing his film Beauty and the Beast, of 1947, in its entirety. It’s a collaborative work of art in which the verbal and the visual are inextricably linked, and a splendid manifestation of Cocteau’s poetic universe in all its astonishing diversity.

The link between Jean Cocteau and Peggy Guggenheim, as well as the link with Venice, is a fundamental element of his story. Can you tell us more about it?
Peggy Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition at her London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, on Cork Street (January 24-February 12, 1938), was dedicated to the art of Jean Cocteau, and a number the works from that show are included in Jean Cocteau: The Juggler’s Revenge. When Cocteau’s feature film career was in full-swing in the late-1940s and 1950s, he regularly attended the Venice Film Festival, both as an exhibitor and an audience member, and would visit Peggy Guggenheim at her Palazzo on the Grand Canal. Cocteau also created objects at Egidio Costantini’s glassworks at Murano, which he helped to revive in the postwar years, and personally rename “La Fucina degli Angeli” (The Foundry of the Angels). Cocteau visited Venice as a youth and remained fascinated by the city his entire life.

What role did Cocteau play in the art scene of his time and how did he influence subsequent generations?
Cocteau was involved in most of the key avant-garde art movements of the first half of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. He worked with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Rolf de Maré’s Ballet Suédois, and was an early experimental film-maker. As a child of the Parisian Right Bank but also an immensely ambitious avant-garde poet and visual artist, Cocteau ‒ more than anyone else ‒ is responsible for bringing together the worlds of high society and bohemia. He popularized the idea of advanced art for the public at large, and made the avant-garde aware of the big world beyond their enclaves in Montmartre and Montparnasse.

Interview by Arianna Testino


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