The French collection: modernist

“The instinct of nearly all societies is to lock up anybody who is truly free,” said Jean Cocteau. “First, society begins by trying to beat you up. If this fails, they try to poison you. If this fails too, they finish by loading honours on your head.”

Cocteau was a modernist maverick: first celebrated as a fin-de-siècle poet, his verses recited by Sarah Bernhardt in packed theatres on the Champs-Elysées, he ended a pioneer of film, with La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Orphée (1950) introducing the avant-garde into French cinema, prefiguring the 1950s New Wave. Relentlessly courting the marginal and offbeat, he repeatedly anticipated the mainstream. What would he have made of the ultimate establishment endorsement – a specially built museum, commissioned by the French state, dedicated to his art and life?

The Musée Cocteau opens on the seafront in Menton next month with an exhibition of more than 200 drawings, paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, tapestries and photographs. Beginning with a dandyish 1910 depiction of Bernhardt and a cubist “Faceless Self-Portrait” from 1915, it includes a portrait of Pablo Picasso made when Cocteau collaborated with him on the opera Parade (1917), a sinister ink-on-vellum illustration of the androgynous poisoner Dargelos from Cocteau’s 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles, dreamily expressive studies for Orphée, and the whimsical, menacing 1953 painting “Madame Favini and her Daughter”, where the child of a bored, rich woman plays at her feet with an insect exterminator.

Although a minor talent as a visual artist, Cocteau is important for his prescient ability to cross genres and mix media, to see film as an extension of image-making rather than narrative – “a film is a petrified fountain of thought” – and as a facilitator whose activities demonstrate seamless connections in French cultural life over half a century, from Marcel Proust to Picasso to Edith Piaf – all his close friends. His open-ended, self-doubting art meandered between words, pictures, performances, so it is poignantly appropriate that his new museum has both a history and an architecture at once labyrinthine, bizarre and inconclusive.

Its double roots go back to the 1950s, when Cocteau visited and fell in love with Menton. From 1956-1958, he refurbished the wedding room of its town hall with frescoes executed in his limpid, economical line, depicting stylised, giraffe-necked, wide-eyed lovers against an azure background under a big sun. In recognition, the Riviera resort made him an honorary citizen, and allowed him also to decorate a small abandoned fort, the Bastion.

At precisely this time, in 1957, a 19-year-old apprentice watchmaker, Severin Wunderman, blew his first month’s salary on a Cocteau sketch – an original drawing for Les Enfants Terribles. He also bought a portrait of Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover and star of his films. Soon Wunderman became obsessed with Cocteau; he also became exceedingly rich, as a watchmaker for Gucci, then as owner of Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Corum.

A Holocaust survivor, Wunderman was secretive and tetchy; married five times, he had houses in California, the south of France and London. In the saleroom he was known as “The Time Lord”, although he called himself “The Black Beast”. As well as Cocteau material, he collected skulls, timepieces and objects as eclectic as a mirror framed by elephant tusks and a gothic hideaway in his Chelsea garden. “I have this stuff because I am interested in death,” he once said. “I thought I’d better check where I’m going to.”

Cocteau’s ghoulish, death-obsessed strain – the poisoning and shooting scenarios of Les Enfants Terribles, where two siblings compete to die first; the gothic fantasy of La Belle et la Bête – probably attracted Wunderman initially. But by the time he died in 2008, the collector had amassed more than a thousand diverse items by the French artist, along with photos and works connected to Cocteau’s friends Bernhardt, Picasso, Tsuguharu Foujita, Amadeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico.

A Cocteau museum in California flopped, as did efforts to establish one in Texas. Then Wunderman, too, was seduced by Menton and, in 2005, the town seized its chance: Wunderman would donate the collection; Menton, supported by France’s ministry of culture, would erect a new building to house it.

Menton’s rivals along the coast all have their modernist temples – museums devoted to Chagall and Matisse in Nice, to Léger in Biot, Picasso in Antibes, Bonnard in Le Cannet. This, however, is a truly 21st-century museum, designed by Rudy Ricciotti as an open-ended, semi-transparent glass maze surrounded by jagged white structures suggesting waves, creating an ever-changing play of light and dark in the Côte d’Azur sun and echoing the shadowy effects of Cocteau’s films and inky drawings. Flamboyantly different from the region’s other museums, it puts Menton on the cultural map.

Yet a fairy-tale alliance between private and public interests this is not. Before the first stone was laid in 2008, Annie Guédras, appointed by Cocteau’s heirs to authenticate his work, questioned a proportion of the collection, saying they were fakes or copies. Pierre Bergé, Cocteau committee chairman and inheritor – from Cocteau’s adopted son Edouard Dermit – of the moral rights to his work, challenged Guédras and introduced another expert. Guédras sued, winning €30,000 in damages in May.

Did Menton “shut its eyes” to doubts, as French newspaper Libération suggested, in fear of Wunderman? Its curator, Hugues de la Touche, did not, calling the collection “of dubious quality, certainly not worthy of an establishment labelled an official French museum”. He was dismissed – because of the controversy, he says, and is also suing. In February, subsequent experts confirmed some 35 works to be fakes. These will not now be on display.

Cocteau would have relished the intrigue. Can a museum ever pin down his particularly French mix of lightness of touch yet uncompromising seriousness? Cocteau and the composer Erik Satie used to joke that “the great thing is not to refuse the Legion of Honour – the great thing is not to have deserved it”. His spirit is surely still in Menton.

The Musée Cocteau opens on November 6ée-jean-cocteau

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.