JEAN COCTEAU IN THE HOUSE
Known as the ‘ tattooed villa’, the former home of Jean Cocteau is an artist’s indelible manifesto on life and living.
In the Spring of 1950, having just wrapped the film adaptation of his novel Les Enfants Terribles, Jean Cocteau went to spend a week in a handsome, turreted villa in Saint-Jean-CapFerrat on the French Riviera. Known then as the Villa Santo Sospir, by the time Cocteau left 11 years later it had become infamous as ‘ la villa tatouée’ — the tattooed villa — thanks to the dandy painter’s deft hand with charcoal and brush. At the time, the house was the summer residence of Françine Weisweiller, a Parisian socialite and patron of Yves Saint Laurent. Weisweiller was the cousin of actress Nicole Stéphane, who plays Elisabeth in Les Enfants Terribles, and it was Stéphane who introduced the two during filming. It was un coup de foudre, the pair of eccentrics hitting it off right away. Perched on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, the villa — decorated by the great Madeleine Castaing — was simply whitewashed in accordance with the style of the region when the 61-year-old artist arrived with his 25-year-old “adopted son” Edouard Dermit. Like any artist confronted with a blank canvas, the desire to leave his mark was compelling. Cocteau asked his hostess if he might draw, above the fireplace, a mural of Apollo, the Greek god of music and art, poetry and archery. So delighted were the new pals with the result that they decided Cocteau should carry on. As he put it shortly afterwards: “I was imprudent enough to decorate one wall and Matisse said to me, ‘If you decorate one wall of a room, you have to do them all.’” The location’s rocky outcrops and sapphire waters reminded the artist of the Aegean, and so he drew upon his knowledge of Greek mythology for the drawings. So, a muscle-bound Dionysus reclines, giddily drunk in one bedroom. Narcissus and the nymph Echo are tête-à-tête in another. A naked Diana, startled by mortal Actaeon while bathing with her escort of nymphs, turns the hapless hunter into a deer. Drawing directly on the walls without preliminary sketches, Cocteau displaced neither furniture nor fixture, often painting over objects where they lay. A lampshade is graffitied with effigies. The belly of one nude seems pregnant with books. Everywhere, his gesture is archly confident, his touch whimsical but self-assured. Erotic, naive, it’s like living inside a giant sketchpad. Cocteau covered all available surfaces in charcoal drawings before going back over them with a mix of tempera, pigment and raw milk. The effect is dreamy, ethereal. Later, he designed fabric wall-hangings to drape over bare surfaces and even over drawings. Occasionally, he painted the interiors of cupboards, or covered paintings with patterned curtains. “And when we no longer know where to hang our paintings,” he said, “we hang them outside, on the trees.” In 1951, Cocteau directed a Kodachrome film in which he gives a guided tour of the villa now tattooed. Grainy, with bold dabs of vibrant colour, it is the very definition of painterly filmmaking. The villa, he says, “is another world, a world in which it is indispensable to forget the one in which we live”. Littered with visual puns and surreal effects, much like his The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orpheus (1950), the film shows doors open of their own accord onto bathrobes that appear as ghosts. A spiral of cigarette smoke rises in front of a painted face. The hairless, suntanned hands of the dandy poet are shown in tight crop, twirling a petunia that appears to fold and unfold, magically, repetitively. At one point, he films his arm in silhouette, shadowed over a flowerbed, moving like that of a compass. »
THIS PAGE: Cocteau began ‘tattooing’ the villa with a figure of Greek god Apollo over the fireplace in the living room. Other mythical figures soon followed. opposite page: in the dining room, woven branches line the walls; tapestry by Cocteau.
“I was imprudent enough to decorate one wall... ...and Matisse said to me...
‘If you decorate one wall of a room, you have to do them all’” − Jean Cocteau
this page: a mosaic by JEAN COCTEAU leads to the front door of the artist’s former home and now museum, known as the ‘tattooed villa’. opposite page: in the dining room, decorated by MADELEINE CASTAING, a tapestry designed by Cocteau.