This weekend, we’re celebrating the long-awaited new Cocteau museum in Menton, a Riviera city near Monaco and the French/Italian border. Cocteau had a close relationship with the city while living in St Jean de Cap Ferrat in the 1950s. Menton adopted Cocteau as an honorary citizen after he redecorated a local marriage hall with a spectacular series of paintings, ceramics and tapestries.
The new museum houses an extraordinary collection donated by Severin Wunderman, a Belgian-born American art collector, philanthropist, Holocaust survivor and renowned watchmaker, who died in 2008. His passion for Jean Cocteau began on an impulse. He was on his way home after picking up his pay-check as an apprentice clockmaker when he spotted, in an antique shop, a drawing by Cocteau dedicated to ‘Les Enfants Terribles’, depicting Jean Marais in Cocteau’s film of the same name. The drawing cost 1600 Belgian francs – just 100 francs less than his pay! His collection has since increased to over 1760 works. Wunderman’s generosity and passion for art are well known. In 2005 he received the Légion d’Honneur for his donation, which ‘will act as a living monument to Jean Cocteau.
The museum was built to a design by Rudy Ricciotti that was selected from bids by over 80 architectural firms. It is a contemporary work of art itself – the facade is coated in shades of black and white, evoking a contemporary design reflecting Cocteau’s style. The structure evokes a labyrinth, and plays with elements of light and shadow. It includes spaces for permanent and temporary exhibitions, an auditorium, a bookstore, an educational center, a café and a conference room.
The collection presents the poet and artist, of course, but also Jean Cocteau the man. Several works reflect the hidden side of a little known personality. Many photographic portraits show Jean Cocteau both as actor and director, sometimes mundane, sometimes isolated in a deep loneliness.
The curator of the museum, Mme Célia Bernasconi, looks after a vast number of art works: not only 623 drawings, 177 manuscripts, 272 prints, 70 posters and 30 illustrated books, but also oils, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, tapestries, glassware and other objects.
A bit of a scandal emerged last summer as art experts squabbled publicly about whether some of the donated pieces were fakes. The disputed pieces (about 35) are not on display.
The Jean Cocteau Museum also has tributes to the poet’s friends. Works by Modigliani, de Chirico, Miro, Fougita, Bernard Buffet and Andy Warhol will also be on permanent display. Cocteau’s Madame Favini and Her Daughter, shown below, is said to have been Picasso’s favorite Cocteau painting.
There is no doubt that this museum will become not only one of the most significant on the Côte d’Azur, but also in Europe.