n o v e m b e r  2,  2012

Some time ago my wife started to call our vacation trips creative missions, and I can’t agree more. Judge for yourself, in the two weeks of our last trip we covered more than 3,500 kilometers driving the roads of France, visited 12 museums, attended 16 exhibitions, took more than 3,000 photographs, stopped at a dozen of wine houses and castles in Condrieu and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and drank a couple of cases of wine. Of course this is nothing but a creative mission, if people still remember what it is.

A visit to the Jean Cocteau Museum, which opened in November 2011 in Menton, was one of the strongest impressions of that trip. Having seen well over a hundred museums in different countries, I have something to compare it with.

It proved not so easy to find the museum. It has been integrated in the surrounding landscape so naturally and professionally that from any point of view it blends into the immediate surroundings and all the town structures despite the centuries that separate them. We had even driven a couple of times around the museum building before we realized that the strangely shaped snow-white columns with darkened glass were in fact the Jean Cocteau museum. It would hardly have occurred to us to look for the museum with a total area of 2,700 square meters virtually on the beach. It took some daring on the part of the municipal authorities and the authors of the architectural design to build an art museum within 100 meters of the sea coast. It is the most expensive land at resorts. In Russia they would most certainly build a hotel or a restaurant at such a place. The French, on the contrary, opted for an exceptionally daring and beautiful project.

 

1 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

2 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

3 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

4 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

5 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

 

The American collector Séverin Wunderman came up with the initiative which was enthusiastically supported by the municipal authorities, and his collection formed the basis of the new museum. Furthermore, the museum got the name Jean Cocteau Séverin Wunderman Collection Museum.

Now if Vallauris is forever associated with Picasso, Nice with Matisse and Biot with Léger, Menton is beyond doubt the town of Cocteau.

 

Хенри Мартиньи. Жан Кокото. 1926 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Henry Martigny. Jean Cocteau. 1926

 

Although Cocteau was attracted to Côte d’Azur from the 1910s, he first visited Menton in August 1955 to attend a music festival. The town had suffered badly during the Second World War, first annexed by fascist Italy and then occupied by Nazi troops. To breathe a new life into the town of 13,000 residents, the mayor decided to organize a music festival, which since then has already taken place 62 times, and an art biennale, held 13 times by now. Initially Henri Matisse and subsequently Marc Chagall were the honorary presidents of the Menton art biennale. Needless to say, these are major events for this small town on the border with Italy.

During his first visit to Menton Cocteau met the local mayor, who suggested that he decorate the wedding room at the early 17th-century Bastion of the port of Menton. At that time Cocteau was already re-decorating the fisherman’s chapel in Villefranche, and he liked the idea. As the theme for the Bastion painting he chose the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, which was especially dear to him after the filming of the Testament of Orpheus.

Simultaneously the municipal authorities suggested that Cocteau put up some of his works at the Bastion, just like the Antibes authorities suggested that Picasso set up his studio at the Chateau Grimaldi. Both projects successfully culminated in the opening of the Cocteau museum in Menton and the Picasso museum in Antibes.

Cocteau took an active part in selecting works for his Bastion museum and considered Menton to be the best place for his oeuvre. He said that his drawings and pastels were akin to waves washing the Bastion walls. The museum opened in 1966, three years after the artist’s death, and had 102 works by Jean Cocteau in its collection.

 

Фото Северина Вундермана Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Séverin Wunderman

 

Séverin Wunderman was forming his collection for over 50 years. As an 18-year-old watchmaker’s apprentice, he bought his first drawing by Jean Cocteau in a Brussels street, paying for it his monthly salary. By that time Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast had been his favorite film.

Séverin Wunderman was born into the family of Polish Jews, who moved to Brussels after the outbreak of the Second World War. When Belgium was occupied by Nazi troops, the parents hid their three children at the homes run by famous Dom Bruno (Henri Reynders), who saved hundreds of Jews. The family reunited after the war, but when Séverin’s mother died, his father sent the little boy to his sister in California, where she lived with her husband. After graduating from school Séverin returned to his father, who kept a jewelry shop in Brussels, and became a watchmaker’s apprentice.

Owing to his perseverance and industry, Séverin came to lead a major watchmaking company with commissions from the Gucci fashion house. Yet collecting Jean Cocteau’s works became his true passion.

In the 1980s Séverin Wunderman, who had by that time formed an outstanding collection of Art Moderne, decided to open the Jean Cocteau museum of graphic and plastic arts in Irvine, California, where his Séverin Watches Company was headquartered.

Wunderman didn’t know Cocteau personally, but established close contacts with his adopted son Édouard Dermit and purchased many works of Cocteau’s from him. The Séverin Wunderman museum opened on September 9, 1985. For ten years the museum conducted educational activities, holding conferences, seminars and lectures and cooperating with many American universities.

In 1995, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, Wunderman sold his business to Gucci, acquired the Chateau Monfort, a 15th-century hunting lodge, at la Colle-sur-Loup in the Riviera, had it fully restored and brought a part of its 20th-century art collection there. Simultaneously, he began to look for a place for the Cocteau museum in southern France. Menton, with its fantastic atmosphere of boundless freedom, was indisputably the best choice.

The project materialized as a result of joint efforts of the mayor, who dreamed of making Menton famous, Séverin Wunderman and a group of professionals led by the architect Rudy Ricciotti, who built an octopus museum by the seaside. Wunderman donated his collection of 1,800 works to Menton – 990 works by Cocteau and the rest by his distinguished friends, including Picasso, Modigliani and de Chirico, plus 178 photographs taken mostly during film shooting and 360 works associated with the actress Sarah Bernhardt. The collection was evaluated at 7 million Euro.

 

6 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

 

7 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

 

The museum was done in an absolutely American style: it is spacious, full of air and brimming with latest audio and video gadgets and has a large parking lot, which is virtually incredible in a French resort town. The small museum shop is stacked to capacity with all sorts of souvenirs with the museum logo, catalogues and books about Cocteau, his time, close friends and associates. This attests to everything having been thought-out well in advance, long before the opening of the museum itself.

Some original exposition solutions are noteworthy. For instance, unable to display all the graphic works of a series in the museum collection, the organizers put up a few of the most expressive sheets in frames on the walls and show the rest as scans on the nearby screen. Any visitor can thus form the fullest possible impression of the given graphic series of the artist. The same method is used to show films directed by Cocteau. Sketches, film scene versions and advertisement posters are displayed on stands, with the film itself running next to them.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t very fond of Cocteau the artist – he seemed monotonous and inordinately esthetic to my taste. I have, however, discovered an entirely new Cocteau in the museum collection – vibrant, with a sharp and attentive eye and a firm hand, with a virtuoso command of line. At an early stage of his development Cocteau went through an infatuation with the work of many a European artist. His enthusiasm for other artists left a mark on the young Cocteau’s work, which continued to be influenced by some practically till his last days.

 

8 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Self-portrait. 1915

9 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Unnamed. 1920

10 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Illustration for Le secret professionnel. 1925

11 Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton

Fisherman and a Young Woman. 1961

 

Sources:

Musée Jean Cocteau. Collection Séverin Wunderman. Snoeck Publishers, 2011.