Jean Cocteau and the French Riviera, an ever-lasting love story – Meanderings through France n° 216
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric Mouren
Although Jean Cocteau died 57 years ago he still is a source of inspiration for present artists and beloved by many art lovers worldwide. He was brilliant in everything he did: poetry, literature, cinema, sculpture, painting and drawing. When he discovered the French Riviera he was in his 20’s and the love story began at once. It lasted 50 years during which he left artistic traces all along the coast leaving a road we can still follow today.
Magnificent frescos in Villefranche-sur-Mer
After landing at Nice Airport you will need to rent a car and then head east along the Mediterranean shore. Your first stop will be Villefranche-sur-Mer a lovely harbour nestled in a deep cove. There you will first stop at the Saint Pierre chapel built in the 17th century that stands right on the port. When Cocteau discovered it the poor chapel was calling for help! At that time it seemed that God had forgotten it and it was used as a shed for fishing nets. Inspired by its white walls that looked like blank canvas waiting for his brushes he decided to give it back to its original religious use.
The chapel had originally been built by and for fishermen. Through the centuries they all were baptized, got married and were given funeral service in this humble house of God. Cocteau started painting frescos on the virgin walls and ceiling as well as on the outside façade. This was the first time he decorated a chapel. Two of the frescos depict Mediterranean scenes with fishermen working on their boat and the other three describe episodes of Saint Pierre’s life. Cocteau entrusted it to the local fishermen’s association and masses are still said here today on special occasions.
The works of renovation and painting took one year. Cocteau immersed himself in this work, to him the chapel was “his youth, his old age, his secret body, his soul and his skin”. He trully was inhabited by this project. In Villefranche Cocteau lived in the Hotel Welcome whose owners were friends since the 1920’s. He once said that he spent there the best moments of his life. Located on the seafront it still is a great place to stay and most of the decoration is a reminder of this illustrious client.
Amazing Villa Santo Sospir
In 1949 Jean-Pierre Melville who had been Cocteau’s assistant director was making “Les Enfants Terribles” a movie based on a novel by Jean Cocteau. It was on this occasion that Cocteau met Francine Weisweiller a wealthy patron of the arts and they instantly became friends. She invited him for a week in the house she owned in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat. It was a small summerhouse called Santo Sospir overlooking the sea, simply decorated, with blank walls. Soon Cocteau told Mrs Weisweiller that “the white walls were shouting their silence to him and that he couldn’t wait to make them talk”.
Cocteau spent many summers in the villa painting one wall after the other, then the ceilings and finally creating two mosaics on the floor of the patio. He first drew an Apollo head over the fireplace. Then of course he didn’t stop there nor did he stay at the villa for just one week. Perched on ladders, without any preparatory drawings he went on painting tduring several summers. Cocteau said it was like painting on the skin of the walls and Santo Sospir became the “Tattooed Villa”. These paintings allow us to enter Cocteau’s vision of Greek mythology. Get ready for a powerful vision!
It will take you only 10 min by car to go from Villefranche-sur-Mer to Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat where the Villa Santo Sospir is. The villa is presently closed to visit for renovation works until 2021. For more information and reopening details you can visit www.villasantosospir.fr.
Villa Santo Sospir was not the only artistic trace left by Cocteau in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Don’t miss visiting the town hall where Jean Cocteau painted another fresco in the wedding room. Ask the receptionist to open the door for you to discover this unique room where lovers from the whole world go for a very special wedding anniversary.
Menton declares its love to Cocteau
Still going east on the lovely coastal road a 45 min drive will take you to Menton. Jean Cocteau first came to Menton to attend a music festival and fell in love with its architecture and atmosphere. The town mayor asked him to decorate the new wedding hall in 1955. To achieve his work Cocteau created his “Menton Style”. Between the different characters painted on the walls such as Orpheus, Euridice, centaurs… he drew a new form of writing using arabesques to cover all the blank spaces. Admiring those frescos you can feel jealous of the lucky ones who get married here!
Your next Cocteau’s stop In Menton will be the “Bastion Jean Cocteau”. No longer used as a fortress in the 50’s, the mayor asked Cocteau to turn it into a museum. Jean Cocteau was enthusiastic about the idea and began to create pebble mosaics for the walls and floors. Then he made a list of drawings, paintings, lithography’s, tapestries and ceramics, thought as his artistic will. He unfortunately died in 1963 before this last work was completed. Nevertheless the project was not abandoned and the museum opened in 1966. More information at: www.tourisme-menton.fr
Another Cocteau Museum opened its doors in 2011 to welcome a donation of Severin Wunderman. He was an American businessman and a great admirer of Cocteau’s work. Throughout his life he collected as many pieces of art connected to Cocteau as he could. In 1985 he created a Cocteau Museum in Irvine, California. But he always meant to bring his collection back to France and it seemed only natural to him to create a new museum in Menton.
This unique collection needed a unique setting. A brand new museum was built inspired by the Mediterranean Sea. Architect Rudy Ricciotti designed an amazing building evoking white bright waves. It is ideally located in the city centre right on the seaside. Being low enough its modern architecture doesn’t spoil the view, on the contrary!
The collection is a perfect evocation of Cocteau’s work from its early years in the 1910’s to his latest works. 1,800 pieces of art were donated by Severin Wunderman and among them 990 made by Cocteau: paintings, drawings, ceramics, tapestries, jewels, photographs, film extracts. You will also be able to see works from Cocteau’s friends: Picasso, Modigliani, De Chirico, Miro, Foujita…
The museum is presently closed but will hopefully soon reopen when the easing of the lockdown comes. More information at www.museecocteaumenton.fr
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny