Villefranche-sur-Mer, chapelle CocteauLa chapelle Cocteau à Villefranche-sur-Mer
©CRT Côte d'Azur France/ Georges VERAN

Cocteau and the Côte d’Azur: a tale of inspiration and love

As a poet, painter, draughtsman, playwright and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau was what we would call a polymorphous artist. After having long made the Côte d’Azur his holiday home, it also became a place for artistic creation. Jean Cocteau left many traces of his work in the region, from Fréjus to Menton.

La Côte d’Azur: Cocteau’s refuge

Jean Cocteau’s first came to the Côte d’Azur in 1911, when he stayed at the Hôtel du Cap near Menton. But it was not until 1923 that the author of Blood of a Poet made it his real holiday home, when his lover, the French writer and poet Raymond Radigué, died. At that time, the Côte d’Azur was a kind of refuge for Jean Cocteau and he even claimed to be Mediterranean.

Villefranche-sur-Mer was part of Cocteau’s Riviera where he could find a certain peace of mind. The Riviera thus became a place of convalescence, even though paradoxically he indulged in opium.

A special relationship with Menton

Although Cocteau had been staying in the Menton area for a long time, it was not until April 1955, during the music festival, that he really fell under the spell of this town famous for its lemons. A month later, he accepted the offer of the then mayor, Francis Palmero to decorate the wedding room in the town hall. Then in 1957, during a stroll, Jean Cocteau also discovered the Bastion, an abandoned 17th century fortress. He went on to supervise its restoration. On his death, the building became the first museum dedicated to him in Menton.

Menton style

During his stay in his beloved town, Jean Cocteau invented the working method he would call the ‘Menton style.’ He used coloured chalk bought in a small bookshop in the old town of Nice, to draw lines and decorate his drawings with the colours of Menton.

A region of creativity

Much more than a holiday home, the Côte d’Azur quickly became a region of creativity for Cocteau. He found he was able to express his passion for mythology here, as evidenced by his numerous frescoes and decorations in the various places he visited during his stays.

These included the chapel of St-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer and the antique theatre in Mediterranean Centre of Cap d’Ail. Cocteau also fell in love with the Santo Sospir villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat which was used as a holiday home. The emptiness of the walls made Jean Cocteau feel dry and withered. He therefore sketched frescoes on all the walls of the villa, beginning with a charcoal drawing of Apollo’s face above the fireplace.

The artist also left his mark on the wedding room in Menton town hall. He was inspired by ancient mythology in his decorative works but also by the ‘Menton style’ which he invented because of the fantastical feeling that Menton imbued in him.

What do all these works have in common? They all revisit and update antiquity. The towns of the Côte d’Azur are still marked by his presence.

Two chapels for one artist

Like Picasso in Vallauris or Matisse in Vence, Jean Cocteau also decorated a place of worship. He even worked on two chapels.

The first one is located in Villefranche-sur-Mer: it is the chapel of St Pierre. This chapel was built by a fishermen’s guild on the port in Romanesque style in the middle of the 16th century. In 1957, as a mark of friendship towards the village fishermen who owned the chapel at the time, Jean Cocteau agreed to decorate it. He used a simple, graphic style free from elaborate decorative techniques, blending figurative and abstract art.

In 1963, the year of his death, he was commissioned to design and decorate the Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem chapel in Fréjus. It is one of the most eclectic monuments of the town of Fréjus. The carnal curves in the chapel add rhythm to the sun’s rays passing through the stained-glass windows. Between Cocteau’s drawings and the dazzling colours, the visit is nothing if not an illuminating experience.