Jean Cocteau, At Rest

A photograph by Berenice Abbott, and its stubborn refusal to be read

Berenice Abbott, Cocteau in Bed with a Mask, 1927, photograph. Courtesy: Cheim & Read, New York

There are certain images that I simply cannot touch. Images that, if I were to approach them, startle them, cause them to stir, might break into dust. Images that, if I were to consider them, scrutinise them, doubt them, might lose the brittleness that drew me to them in the first place. Images that might one day leave.

This photograph, taken by Berenice Abbott of Jean Cocteau in 1927, is one such image. It has been resting on my desktop for over three years, the lone survivor of several ambitious clean-ups and reorganizations of research material, not to mention a particularly significant hard drive malfunction. Over the years, change has not proven itself to be the only constant. Cocteau has been there, too.

It is not that I have forgotten him – anything but. I have approached him, repositioned him, copied him, stared at him, enhanced him, enlarged him, minimized him. Once, I printed him. I have tried to write about him on more occasions than I can remember. But everything about this image pushes me away. It is not that I do not want to wake Cocteau (although that is surely a consideration). It’s that I cannot.

The ghostly contrast between the heads, neither of which is any more alive than its counterpart. The blotted wallpaper, too far away. The two dark buds below Cocteau’s neckerchief, approximating fingertips. The glow of his crown. His arching hairline, hazy. The mask’s nose, too defined between beady eyes. The depth of its mouth.

The right hand, which rests upon the plump stomach that Cocteau did not have. The left hand, which lacks meat. The shadow, to the right of the image, which could be another body or could be nothing. The square creases of the linen. And as the sheet falls to the floor, the lack of them. The orientation. (Cocteau should be positioned ever so slightly to the left.)

I scrutinise this image. I obsess over this image. I crave this image. But, to this day, I cannot get past it. I cannot get through it. I cannot find a gap in its surface into which I can crawl. Or perhaps I do not want to. Perhaps it is the crisp vulnerability of Cocteau – or Abbott’s staging of such a thing. Perhaps it is a question of consent. Perhaps, at rest, we are within our rights to be delicate.

I have, again, failed. I have failed to unfurl Cocteau’s fingers, to disturb his bedding, to hear his breath. I have found no way to press into this image and, as such, it will remain within me. Perhaps this is what I want.

‘Berenice Abbott: Portraits of Modernity’ is on view at Fundación MAPFRE, Barcelona, until 19 May, and will travel to Fundación MAPFRE’s Sala Recoletos, Madrid, in June.

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

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