Jean Cocteau’s History on the French Riviera
The Welcome Hotel sits at the edge of the curved amphitheater of pastel buildings that rim the Port de la Sante in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Catherine Galbois-Sigwalt is the young and stylish manager. Her family has owned this low-key but elegant corner of heaven since 1943.
Room 22 is the most famous in the house. This is where, from 1925-1926, Jean Cocteau hunkered down for a year-long opium bender and phase of artistic introspection. He had mentored a brilliant young writer, Raymond Radiguet, who, following a trip to Africa together, caught typhoid and died at age twenty. Cocteau was inconsolable, and the Welcome Hotel was his refuge.
Room 22 is a serene palette of pale blues and grays, and there is a puddle of afternoon sunlight on the floor. The trellised balcony that overlooks the sea and Saint Pierre Chapel. This small church inspired Cocteau to return to Villefranche frequently, and in 1956 he created a masterpiece there, one of several he gave to the Cote d’Azur, where he was drawn so often throughout his life.
The band Rolling Stones famously recorded Exile on Main Street at Keith Richards’ tax haven villa, Nellecote, in the summer of 1971, in Villefranche. But it’s Cocteau who has left the deepest imprint here.
It’s hard to convey the magnitude of his acclaim in France and also to describe who and what he really was artistically, besides everything. He was a giant of the 20th century, a provocateur in art, literature, and film. Cocteau never seemed to stop working, crossing over disciplines, garnering the respect, and often collaboration, of the cool friends he made along the way: Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Nijinsky from the Ballets Russes, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich.
He battled a recurrent drug addiction, about which he wrote a startling illustrated memoir: Opium, the Diary of His Cure, and when he went to rehab, Coco Chanel paid the bill. After the roaring 20s, when he cured his opium addiction here and, as he put it, haunted the place with his Parisian friends, he returned time and again. He painted the fishermen, lived with them and wrote about them. He revealed that he spent the “best time” of his life in Villefranche.
He lived near his pal Colette overlooking the Palais-Royal gardens in Paris and attended bullfights in Nimes and Arles with Pablo Picasso. The New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner reviewed Cocteau’s 1946 ballet La Mort de Homme in June 1946 and wrote about its creator: “The passage of time seems neither to wither nor even to interrupt the hothouse ripeness of his talent.”
He wrote twenty-three books of poetry, five novels including Les Enfants Terribles, directed eleven films, at least three of which was Orpheus, the original Beauty and the Beast, and The Blood of a Poet. They are classics of French avant-garde cinema. He wrote plays, screenplays, memoirs, did set design and ballet scenarios.
As a visual artist he was equally, if not more prolific, creating paintings, drawings and portraits, the latter of which are instantly recognizable for their simplicity and refinement, using a mini-mum of lines to convey the waves in a subject’s hair or surprise in an eyebrow.
The largest collection of his work is ensconced in the 29,000 square foot seaside Cocteau Museum that opened in 2011 in Menton, the city that borders Italy and is known for its citrus orchards and mimosa groves. The multi-talented Cocteau converted the 17th-century fort into his personal museum, called La Bastion. In Menton’s municipal marriage hall, the Salle des Mariages, he painted another triumphant homage to the Cote d’Azur: a mural of a couple under a big Provencal sun.
It took seven years of bureaucratic red tape to gain permission to decorate Saint Pierre, the 14th-century chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer that had enchanted him for decades and which he feared, as a storage place for fishing nets, would be destroyed by neglect. The Villefranche fishermen also opposed the project until Cocteau arranged to donate the entrance fee to their local fund. He succeeded at last, and was able to complete his work there in 1957 at the age of sixty-eight. With all that resistance, he had to make it brilliant — and he did.
It’s a wondrous achievement, with figures, watchful eyes, and delicate shapes covering every bit of wall space. The renderings are a melange of biblical, figurative and decorative scenes that incorporate the docks, stairways, and medieval fortress of Villefranche as a backdrop. The simple but evocative drawings are colored with the washed ochre, blues, yellows and pinks of the seaside village.
One panel is of local women bearing baskets of fish and sea urchins before bright waves under a swarm of faceless angels. On the ceiling too, figures float with the airy strength of Cocteau’s uncomplicated lines. There are depictions of the life of Saint Peter, a servant handing him to Roman guards after the renunciation, and the rooster crowing; when he walks on water, the fishermen gawk and the fish leap in awe.
All the scenes are crowned by flights of angels, in homage to the Baie des Anges in Nice. There is nothing to do but stare in reverence.
More About Jean Cocteau
Continue to Jean Cocteau’s time in Cap Ferrat at Villa Santo Sospir or read about the Jean Cocteau Art Museum in Menton.