In the footsteps of Jean Cocteau


Chloé Govan reveals how the ‘frivolous prince’ and polymath battled Nazi associations and a porn scandal before finally finding peace on the French Riviera.

Jean Cocteau is known as a poet, fiction writer, actor and director, without forgetting an essential figure in the world of Parisian art who counted among his friends Picasso and Modigliani. However, what do you know of the controversies of his life and how he sought to escape them on the Côte d’Azur?

The tide began to turn for the once-respected designer when he publicly downplayed Hitler’s failures as World War II approached. It was an unusual move for an openly gay man, given Hitler’s apparent hatred of homosexual lifestyles.

Shortly after taking office, the Chancellor began to condemn homosexuals as “socially aberrant” threats to be eliminated from society. He had the Berlin Institute of Sexual Sciences purged, burning nearly 12,000 books. In 1935 he made gay sex a criminal offense punishable by ten years in prison, and a few years later gave the go-ahead to castrate those unfortunate enough to end up behind bars. Then, during the war years, up to 15,000 gay people were banished to concentration camps, sporting a pink triangle to identify their “crime” – and many never made it out alive.

Cocteau photographed in 1923

dubious friends

All of this, coupled with his disapproval of so-called “deviant art”, makes him an unlikely token ally for a gay man in the art world. But according to Cocteau, Hitler was waging an internal war against his own homosexual appetites. These chilling allegations were echoed in HIThe secret of tler: the double life of a dictatora book by historian Lothar Machtan, which claimed: “Hitler himself never condemned homosexuality, but he allowed the persecution of homosexuals in order to disguise his own colors”.

The surprising sympathies Cocteau expressed for the wartime dictator were likely forged during his friendship with sculptor and architect Arno Breker, notably the only German to exhibit in France during the Nazi occupation. He was undoubtedly a controversial figure due to his conflict of interest – he was despised by some for his kinship with Hitler and his association with the Nazi regime, which came together dichotomously with his passionate friendships within the community. artist from Paris, where he had lived during the pre-war years.

Breker was technically a Nazi-sponsored artist, who had been photographed walking with Hitler in the occupied city. Allegations have been made about his “exploitation of the occupation economy”, buying works of art from people belonging to persecuted groups at unreasonably low prices. However, nothing deterred Cocteau from meeting this hated “representative of the enemy” in an apartment he lived in at the Ritz in Paris. He even wrote an article, “Hail Breker”, in which he praised his artistic ability, poetically stating that he had transcended political and geographical boundaries with his work, avoiding animosity to deliver universally enjoyable art. The article was featured on Comoediaon the front page in May 1942 and was read by around 50,000 speechless Parisians. That was not, it seemed, the way they saw Breker. In fact, Breker himself recalled the first Frenchman he had met while walking the streets of the city with the Führer. “He looks petrified! ” he wrote.

Breker claimed that he used his influence within the Nazi regime to prevent action being taken against Picasso and to release Jewish prisoners from prison. In the summer of 1944, Cocteau again put pen to paper in a journal entry lamenting that he was treated as an enemy of the public because of his support for Breker. “What am I being blamed for? To be Arno Breker’s friend,” he wrote, insisting in his friend’s defense that “he saved countless prisoners.” Despite a near miss, Cocteau considered the fact that he was never convicted of collaboration after the war to be a victory of art over war and of real people over politicians.

He ran into political danger on another notable occasion when he became involved in the imprisonment of fellow gay author Jean Genet. After a long series of convictions for theft, obscene acts and the like, Genet was threatened with life imprisonment, prompting his buddies Cocteau, Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre to intervene and petition the president on his behalf. They were successful and Cocteau would then have been the director of photography for Genet’s 1950 film A song of love, a long-banned 26-minute homoerotic film; a California court, for example, called it “nothing more than hardcore pornography.”

Cocteau painted many murals © ANDYSCOTT

It was the latest in a series of scandals for Cocteau, who then left the opium-laden Paris art scene for a slower pace of life in the south of France. Although Cocteau was a prolific author, actor and playwright during his lifetime – he even wrote a book in just a week while trying to erase the grief of bereavement – the most enduring trace of his creative legacy for those who follow his journey Traces can be found on the Riviera. His tendency to find solace there began when the 1923 death of his close friend, writer Raymond Radiguet, aged just 20, left him inconsolable. He retired to the Hotel Welcome in Villefranche-sur-Mer for an entire year in 1925.

Sadly, however, it took more than the sun and ocean waves to heal his heart and he soon found himself in the grip of an opium addiction. That said, his famous friends were there to help, and Coco Chanel paid a rehab bill for him. As the temptations of the Roaring Twenties faded and the stress of the capital became a distant memory, he began to cherish new memories born on the Riviera. He will declare that the best moments of his life were spent there by the sea, painting the fishermen.

In the 1950s, he decorated a nearby chapel, which was ubiquitous on the horizon when he looked out from his hotel room balcony. Today, it’s easy for travelers to follow in his footsteps by checking into Room 22 and soaking up the exact same views. Her movie scene artwork adorns the space, while the navy blue walls above the bed bear one of her signature quotes: “Once in a while you have to rest from doing nothing” (” Once in a while, you need to rest from doing nothing”.)

The 14th century Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer, which he revived © Shutterstock

A calmer lifestyle

After a life of decadence, the man of excess – who once said that “a little too much is just enough for me” – began channeling his energy into decoration. He began to make his mark not just in the fleeting world of theater, but in places where he could have a lasting visual legacy, like the buildings themselves. Some might say Cocteau immortalized his soul here on the Riviera – and visitors can reap the rewards.

The 14th century Chapelle Saint-Pierre, a stone’s throw from the Hôtel Welcome, was in poor condition when Cocteau discovered it in 1956, a simple practical storage place for fishing nets or a meeting place for the local fishermen’s association. . He volunteered to bring the inside – and the outside – to life with his art, and the results prevail today.

The walls are instantly recognizable, projecting his trademark style – but revamping it has never been easy. In fact, he remembers spending three painstaking days painting the face of Christ more than 50 times before the final version was unveiled.

Besides this project, his traces also go back to Santo Sospir, a villa belonging to the socialite Francine Weisweiller, on the other side of the bay of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Just a 15-minute drive from the Welcome Hotel – or a scenic 50-minute journey if traveling by bus – it’s yet another lasting memory of Cocteau’s oeuvre. He had befriended Weisweiller, who was just over half his age (the pair were 61 and 34 respectively at the time) and related to his need to get away from his hectic life. in the capital.

In May 1950, after his cousin appeared in a film based on his book The Terrible Children, Cocteau is invited to spend a weekend in the elegant Riviera villa of Weisweiller. It turned out to be a place he was reluctant to leave, and Cocteau soon got to work on the interiors.

The Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton © Shutterstock

He decorated the area above the fireplace with an illustration of Apollo the sun god. From there, his work expanded and he ended up transforming every inch of space, using unusual pigments made from a mixture of charcoal and raw milk. Cocteau spent a total of 11 years in the house he had elaborately decorated. Ownership of the villa remains in the Weisweiller family and viewings can be arranged in advance. Meanwhile, further along the Riviera towards the Italian border is the warm and balmy town of Menton, famous, among other things, for its Lemon Festival. You will find the Jean Cocteau Museum/Severin Wunderman Collection on the seafront, the Bastion Museum, housed in the 17th century fort, which is full of his works, and the Marriage Hall of Menton Town Hall, also decorated with its frescoes. Finally, the Hôtel Napoléon offers rooms on the seafront also decorated with works by Cocteau.

Although he died near his birthplace in Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris, in 1963, he left a part of his heart on the Côte d’Azur. Visitors to his former haunts are guaranteed to catch a glimpse not just of his work, but of the passionate soul behind it, and the artist’s state of mind when he said to the world that poets “shed not only the red blood of their hearts but the white blood of their souls”.

Excerpt from France Today magazine

Main photo credit: Head to the beautiful city of Menton if you want to follow in Cocteau’s footsteps © Renek78


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