SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
As most people who care about modern art, to list the major 20th century painters, they may start with Picasso, Matisse, then move on to the Americans, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But in France, a new museum just opened, devoted exclusively to one of the most multi-talented, controversial and often forgotten artist of the last century, Jean Cocteau.
Frank Browning traveled to France on the Cote d'Azure to report on this very peculiar man and the museum that celebrates him.
FRANK BROWNING, BYLINE: The trouble with Jean Cocteau was the breadth of his talents: poet, playwright, performer, filmmaker, sculptor, painter and musician. Celia Bernasconi, the director of the new museum, says that that's exactly what turned the French against him.
CELA BERNASONI: (Through Translator) Here in Europe, and particularly in France, there's a tendency to categorize artists. But Cocteau was someone who escaped all that. He touched everything: literature, theater, cinema. It's something that works far better in the U.S. but here we have to put label on people.
BROWNING: Aside from a major retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in 2003, Cocteau's visual art has remained little known and seldom seen inside France. Instead, his reputation here is based on his poetry and his writing for film and theater.
Last fall, French actress Yannick Rocher, toured the United States with one of Jean Cocteau's most famous plays "The Human Voice."
YANNICK ROCHER: (Foreign language spoken)
BROWNING: In it, a single character is talking to her lover on the phone, knowing that he's already betrayed her and is about to marry another women.
ROCHER: I wait for you and die to think you were dead. I was happy when you came, and at the same time I was dying to know that you were about to leave.
BROWNING: Rocher says that what she loves about Cocteau, in both his writing and in his artwork, is the emotional complexity beneath a very plain surface.
ROCHER: With one line he can draw a face or a profile, just one sketch and it's enough. Just that the outside line shows the character. And the text, I would say is exactly the same. One sentence is enough to know exactly what's going on.
BROWNING: The collection at the new Cocteau museum includes 990 artworks; drawings, lithographs, oils, water colors and small sculptures. The museum also shows clips from Cocteau's master film work, "La Belle et La Bete," or "The Beauty and the Beast," where a young blonde Josette Day enters the magic palace of grotesque beast in order to save her father's life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LA BELLE ET LA BETE")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BROWNING: Muscular arms extend flickering candles to guide her through the halls until she enters the garden, where the beast confronts her, and she faints.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LA BELLE ET LA BETE")
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)
: (Foreign language spoken)
BROWNING: The beast was played by the French adventure actor and matinee idol, Jean Marais, who was also Cocteau's longtime lover. It's at once a surreal and melodramatic film made during and after the German occupation of France.
Museum director Bernasconi says Cocteau explored the fantastic then to escape the grim horrors of daily life.
BERNASONI: This is attractive and repulsive at the same time. So it really incarnates this mix human and this reality.
BROWNING: Satyrs, unicorn, sphinxes. Cocteau often wrote that these mythic Latin creatures seemed to him still present on the modern Mediterranean coast. That's one of the things that drew him to the small towns along the Cote d'Azure, where the Cocteau Museum captures some of that ambiance. Its exterior facade can seem like a row of upstretched forearms or like carnivorous teeth, depending upon how the sun hits the building. But the museum project has also provoked a controversy over a part of the key collection donated by the late Severin Wunderman, a holocaust survivor who later became a California billionaire.
ANNIE GUEDRAS: (Through Translator) There are between 30 and 40 pieces in the Wunderman collection that I know are absolutely false.
BROWNING: Annie Guedras was designated by Cocteau's last lover and adopted son Edouard Dermit to take charge of the Cocteau collection.
GUEDRAS: (Through Translator) And as well, there are others - mostly lithographs - that were not made by Cocteau during his lifetime but printed after his death for is beneficiaries.
BROWNING: Guedras' objections posed a problem for the planned museum, which depended on the Wunderman collection. When the wealthy French publisher and businessman Pierre Ballanger(ph), who had himself been a close friend of Cocteau, became the driving force behind the museum, he shut Guedras out and dismissed her publicly. Guedras sued him for professional defamation and won her case. Now the questionable works have been withdrawn.
For her part, Guedras says she brooks no ill toward the new museum and remains dedicated to the artist's work.
GUEDRAS: (Through Translator) Cocteau always said he was an acrobat who led his life on the high-wire across the decades of the century. He was always in the avant-garde, always looking at new ideas and new ways of expressing himself.
BROWNING: Finally, Guedras says, Jean Cocteau was one of the great artists of his time, more than deserving of having a museum dedicated to him.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.