I was surprised to find myself thinking of graduate school while traveling in Southern France this autumn. While working on my masters in studio art, I was a teacher’s assistant for a number of classes including one with the amusing title, “Museum Problems.” One could interpret that in any number of ways and while it sounded like a silly construct of a course, it ended up being one of those experiences that taught useful tools regarding the powers of institutions to enforce particular lines of thinking. It also conjured up questions of what constituted a museum and what it meant when the work of a person of color or a woman was relegated to a location with poor sightlines or offered the least amount of foot traffic. Curators, museum directors and even docents have always had the power to conduct how work is viewed, received, interpreted.
In a trip planned with 1000-year-old architecture in mind and countryside full of farms and vineyards but little to do with the pursuit of gallery art, it was odd to find myself thinking about museums and their problems. Even so, after a few days in Italy, we found ourselves taking a break from our road trip in the beautiful city of Menton, France, not far from the southern border. Like other cities and villages on the Riviera, Menton is a mix of stunning buildings (from the medieval to modern) and gorgeous blue waters in close proximity to a mountainous coastline. Menton also offered a welcome respite from the death-defying experience of driving the Italian freeways. In the post-road pursuit of a restroom we ducked into the old fortress on the beach, the Bastion. Unfortunately, the fort was closed in its transition from housing a small collection of the work of Jean Cocteau to a nearby new museum built in his honor. The Jean Cocteau Severin Wunderman Collection Museum, scheduled to open to the public later this fall, is a sprawling contemporary surrealist affair designed by Rudy Ricciotti. Thankfully it has a low architectural profile so that it doesn’t interrupt the postcard-perfect view.
The Severin Wunderman Museum, once located on the upper floor of the Severin Group’s Irvine, California warehouse, was one of the oddest locations for a “museum” that I’ve ever experienced. As the sole manufacturer of watches for Gucci, Severin Wunderman had amassed an extensive collection of the works of Jean Cocteau and it was available for viewing by appointment only. Driving through the clean winding streets of outer Irvine in the mid ’90s, there was not a pedestrian in sight. It was the kind of neighborhood featuring the types of businesses in which there is little clue, beyond logo, of what lies within.
The group of students I took to the museum entered through the loading dock where cases of elegant watches were standing in shipping crates bound for the showcases of Gucci. There we were met by a staff member and taken upstairs to what felt like a secret collection. On display were a number of the French surrealist’s drawings, photographs, ceramics, books and posters, literally housed in a large over-lit office space with low acoustical-tiled ceilings and an aura of light industrial complex blandness that could not have been further from the quality or source of the work. I’m sure my memory fails me here but somehow, I associate carpeted walls with the installation.
The museum was clearly a collection that had outgrown its owner’s home and storage capabilities. The beauty of it was that Severin Wunderman chose to share it as best he could. Apparently, he once negotiated with the city of Laguna Beach, California, hoping to move the collection from Irvine to Laguna, keeping it close at hand. Negotiations fell apart over parking issues, however, and most certainly Wunderman’s well-publicized temper played a role. Upon his decision to return to his native Europe, he left the collection to Menton.
Over the years Jean Cocteau traveled to Menton many times and created several major paintings there prior to his death in 1963. The enormous murals he painted for the wedding room at the town hall, transformed the entire room into a work of art. This history links Cocteau naturally to Menton and makes a perfect case for the Wunderman collection landing in the city. Severin Wunderman’s bequest includes 1,800 works, 990 of which are by Jean Cocteau, including drawings, painting, pebble mosaics, ceramics, tapestries, jewelry, photography, audio and cinema. 450 works are by Cocteau’s friends including Picasso, De Chirico, Miró, and Modigliani, as well as hundreds having to do with Sarah Bernhardt, for whom Cocteau coined the term monstre sacré (referring to the hysteria inspired by divas of the stage). While 35 or so of the artworks were recently rumored to be fakes, the lion’s share should make a formidable presentation especially located in such a grand setting.
It was an unusual coincidence to have the Cocteau collection cross my path again so far from where I’d first seen it. I regret that it wasn’t open to see the full collection. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled the work has a more suitable and appropriate home in a town with a historic connection to Jean Cocteau himself. Museum problem solved.
If you’ve never seen Cocteau’s films you’ve missed a visual treasure. All of his cinematic works are inspiring photographically and regarding his 1945 version of “Beauty and the Beast, Halloween would be a great time to revisit.