Authors: Sebastian Faulks
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General
Cocteau was a man of great gifts, many of them on permanent display. He had burst into Paris at the age of sixteen at a ball given by Madame de Chavannes at the Opéra. He appeared dressed as Heliogabolus, the most dissolute of all Roman emperors, carried on a litter by two Nubian wrestlers. It was an entrance to which he had lived up as poet, draughtsman, librettist, talker, impresario and self-publicist with a lifelong passion for what he had to sell.
Edith Wharton remarked of Jean Cocteau that no one had ever made her understand better the lines of Wordsworth ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven.’ Cocteau was thirty-five when Wood met him in 1924 but had
made a fetish of his own youth. He ran away to sea at the age of fifteen and published his first poem in 1908 when he was nineteen. The financial support of his mother allowed him to indulge his talents. He brought out a magazine called
in 1908 which belonged in essence
to the fin de siècle:
its little drawings had a touch of Decadent mascara. When Modernism burst on the world shortly afterwards Cocteau was swift to adapt his ideas; but in the 1920s the fact that he could trace a line back to the old days helped him to rise above the competing manifestos of Dada, Futurism and Surrealism. As well as being a perpetual
, he was old enough to know better.
Cocteau infiltrated himself behind the scenes of the Russian Ballet. He liked everything about it – the snobbery, the glamour, and particularly its principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev hired him to work as a publicist, but forbade him access to the showers. In 1915, Cocteau made up for this by joining an ambulance unit run by his friend Comte Etienne de Beaumont, one of Paris’s greatest party-givers. The unit included shower-baths in which Cocteau took numerous photographs, celebrating the experience in a poem called
He recalled the bodies with sensual pleasure, particularly the part that fascinated him all his life –
‘Je ne crois guère aux hommes de petite verge’
(‘I can’t really believe in men with a small prick’). Throughout the war he commuted back to Paris, where he struggled to stage a ballet called
When the ballet opened in 1917 he called it ‘the greatest battle of the War’, a tiny provocation to the French army, then in full-scale mutiny over the epic loss of life on the Chemin des Dames.
Cocteau befriended the aviator Roland Garros and flew with him on several occasions. Garros was involved with trying to develop a machine gun that fired through gaps left as the propeller rotated. Cocteau claimed that Garros had solved the problem by watching an electric fan in Cocteau’s mother’s flat in the rue d’Anjou. Garros was killed on a mission in 1918 and Cocteau dedicated his book of poems
Le Cap de Bonne Esperance (The Cape of Good Hope)
to him. The figure of the airman had caught his imagination, just as it had appealed to Proust, who visited the aerodrome and in
wheeling, looping angels in a Giotto fresco to ‘the young pupils of Roland Garros’.
The best and worst of the period, the brilliant and the cheap, the beautiful and the spurious, met in the person of Jean Cocteau. He appropriated a bar called Le Gaya, initially as a snub to the Dada movement, but then found he liked being a nightclub manager. It was succeeded by Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the definitive bar for visiting Americans.
When Wood met him in 1924 Cocteau was in mourning for his lover, Raymond Radiguet, a boy comet he had met at Max Jacob’s house when Radiguet was only sixteen. Radiguet produced a novel called
he Diable au Corps
, which was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, but died of typhoid, apparently contracted from bad oysters, in December 1923, still only twenty years old.
Cocteau’s ostentatious mourning led Parisians to apply to him the word
(widower), usually in the vicious sobriquet
‘le veuf sur le toit’.
A friend called Louis Laloy suggested his grief might be assuaged by opium and Cocteau took to the drug so readily that he smoked it for the rest of his life. He was shrewd enough to buy only the best and to treat it with the respect it required. He went through two cures for smoking, though the literary benefits that accrued, both in the books he wrote about it and in the quiet that the sanatorium gave him to consider other projects, led Stravinsky to comment that ‘the chief purpose of the drug-taking came to be book-making’.
The impressionable Christopher Wood sat in Cocteau’s first-floor room watching him at work. From Picasso he had learned the trick of making a drawing with a single line, without taking the pencil from the page. Wood, who often struggled with his line, was suitably awed. Cocteau talked to Wood about opium and shared his delight in the ritual aspect of smoking. The pipes were best prepared by Chinese ‘boys’ while the smokers lay back and awaited their pleasure. ‘People talk about the “enslavement” of opium,’ Cocteau wrote; ‘but taking it at regular hours is in fact not only a discipline but a liberation … It reassures by virtue of its air of luxury, its rites, the elegance of its non-medical
lamps, flames, pipes and by the secular ritual of its exquisite communion.’
Most of what Cocteau said was true, but with the weighty provisos that the smoker should be rich enough to buy the best drug, self-disciplined enough not to abuse it, and should come to it in a state of mind that was not vulnerable or unbalanced. None of these serious reservations would have counted with Wood, who was in the first rapturous glow of hero-worship. Under Cocteau’s influence, Wood’s use of opium, which had been an occasional indulgence with Gandarillas, became a regular habit.
Cocteau left Villefranche at the end of November 1924 to travel to London with Diaghilev’s ballet for the opening of Milhaud’s
Le Train Bleu
, decorated by Henri Laurens with a curtain by Picasso, for which he had written the libretto. By December he was back in Paris, smoking heavily, and seeing Christopher Wood. He encouraged him in his painting and promised to bring Picasso to come and look at it. In return Wood offered to share his studio with him. Cocteau accepted, and the arrangement worked well because Wood was a morning worker and Cocteau seldom left his mother’s house before noon.
Wood was thrilled by his own life and confused by public events. He believed that there was panic in Paris because everyone was expecting a revolution, but he was too absorbed by his work to find out what it was all about. He told his mother that ‘I hope to goodness there is not’ a revolution; but having escaped the massacre of Smyrna he felt no particular need to take any precautions against mobs in the
He returned to the easel.
Cocteau arranged for him to go to classes with Andre Lhote, who was regarded as the best teacher of composition in Paris. He also took him to a doctor who diagnosed acute anaemia and put him on a further course of iron and arsenic injections. Cocteau told Wood he had more talent for painting than anyone he had ever met.
It was almost enough to turn a young man’s head; though there is no evidence that it did. One of the ways in which Cocteau kept himself youthful was by taking young lovers, and Wood’s handsome naïveté was exactly what appealed to his taste. At
about this time, however, while Wood’s regard for Cocteau’s achievements in no way diminished, he formed the opinion that he was a ‘most jealous and selfish person’. If some sexual incident took place it made no impact on either man, or on their relationship, in which Cocteau for all his selfishness continued to encourage, and Wood to learn.
In February 1925 Wood saw his old friend Drian, who, to his hilarious disgust, had taken to painting people’s ceilings with a picture of the owner, his house and a map of the surrounding countryside. Wood meanwhile invited his mother to come and stay in his studio in the rue des Saints Peres, where he still officially lived. She came in March, and the visit passed off in perfect harmony. It was what Wood most wanted: to paint all day long with his mother in the background and his father several hundred miles away. When Clare Wood returned to Huyton Kit wrote to her as though they were adulterous lovers, waiting for the day when the impediment to their happiness would be removed. He did not say how he expected this to happen, but quoted his favourite proverb:
‘Tout s’arrange dans la vie.’
At the same time Cocteau was persuaded to take an opium cure at the Thermes Urbains, a clinic in the rue Chateaubriand. His disappearance from Wood’s life and studio ended a tense period in which Wood’s loyalty to Gandarillas had been tested. That it passed off without major incident was largely due to Gandarillas’s decision to let Wood’s hero-worship run its course.
Shortly afterwards Wood and Gandarillas set off for their customary spring break. Gandarillas had been anxious to escape a visit to Paris by the president of Chile, accompanied by Mrs Gandarillas. They went first to Marseille, where, like many others, Wood painted boats in the harbour; then they moved to the Bristol and Majestic hotel at Monte Carlo where Picasso had taken a floor to accommodate his wife, their baby and several servants. Also at the hotel were the principals of the Russian Ballet. Wood felt flatteringly at one with what he called a ‘big family of artists.’ Picasso said he would like to see his paintings, but Wood had nothing of sufficient interest with him. Picasso gave him a sketchbook but no dedicatory sketch; he was notoriously mean about giving drawings to his friends and
preferred to throw away the ones that did not please him. Only Mme Errazuriz was regularly given his work.
From Monaco Wood and Gandarillas moved on to Rome, where Wood returned to the Villa d’Este with Lord Berners (‘a musician and an intelligent man’) and saw the Sistine Chapel. Gandarillas had a fever, which prevented him from going out, and Wood sat with him. After lunch the shutters were closed against the heat of the afternoon, but Wood was unable to join the general siesta. They were building an extension to the hotel and there was the sound of hammers, pulleys and shovels; behind that was the noise of unsilenced car exhausts, to say nothing of motor horns and the regular Roman background of churches tolling the hour while women shouted to each other across the narrow streets.
Wood did some drawings in red chalk, even though Picasso had told him one should always draw in pencil. He coloured them in with what he saw as the characteristic grey and brown of Rome, being careful to avoid the prettiness of the amateur water-colourist.
Back in Paris Cocteau was sufficiently impressed by the drawings to suggest Wood might try to exhibit some of them. This was guarded praise, but Cocteau was nervous enough of his own reputation not to want to be associated with anything of whose value he was not certain. It was the first real indication that Christopher Wood was on the verge of leaving his student days behind and becoming a painter whose work people might admire and buy.
Drian’s absurd exhibition, meanwhile, was a predictable success. Wood spent more and more of his time at Gandarillas’s house and began to feel some remorse for his little studio. An innocent but intense passage of his life had been lived there, a schoolboy dream of bohemian life with four-course dinners miraculously thrown in. But the studio was too hot in the summer months, even if he stood stripped to the waist. At Gandarillas’s house he could paint all day in his pyjamas while the lunch provided by the cook was much better than that in the restaurant near his studio. He was getting more work done this way, yet he remained wistful about the rue des Saints Peres. He
felt that an era was coming to an end. ‘The time goes terribly quickly,’ he wrote to his mother with a strange fatal note. ‘I hope the rest of my life won’t pass so fast as this.’
Later in the summer he and Gandarillas went to London, and within days of his arrival there was talk of an exhibition. The talk came from Frank Dobson, who was then at the height of his considerable fame as a sculptor and was also president of the London Group. Augustus John admired a screen that Wood had painted at Gandarillas’s house in Cheyne Walk and paid him the compliment of buying a small picture of two girls sitting on a bench. Dobson introduced him to the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street; John told Gandarillas that Wood’s work showed huge natural talent and had, indeed, the makings of greatness.
It had happened. Rather suddenly, in a way, but now there was no denying that Christopher Wood, who had left England in 1921 with nothing more than a perverse and earnest ambition, had returned as an artist. His success was at this stage only with other artists and not yet with the public; but he valued their opinion more than that of dealers or buyers. His position was roughly comparable to that of a writer who has had his first book accepted for publication. However minor, and however embarrassingly recollected in later years, it is a breakthrough.
Wood handled his success badly. He was so afraid of losing it that he was superstitious even of admitting it to himself. This fear could be quelled only by little rushes of conceit: ‘There are one or two modern French people, two painters amongst them,’ he told his mother, ‘who think I am already a better painter than anyone in England except John, who doesn’t come into it at all and who is too old-fashioned now.’ He had said it, and perhaps it was better to be frank: a young painter could not be faithful both to Picasso and Augustus John.
The young Spanish painter Pedro Pruna wanted to swap drawings with him; most of the others Wood had brought with him from Paris were accepted by London galleries. Wood made himself a bedroom at the top of Gandarillas’s house on the Embankment, where he sat amid the silver and black decorations, taking stock of what he had done. He noted soberly that Augustus John had sold his portrait of Luisa Casati for £12,000.
Some equilibrium returned. For all his superstition and his vanity, he kept a grip on his ambition. He did not allow his small success to satisify it; in fact he made sure it only served to feed it further. He was to be, after all, not just a painter but the greatest painter that had ever lived.