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Collector Hoping World Will See More in Cocteau Than Novels, Film

December 26, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

Picasso is reported to have said that if 20th-Century art were described as a comet, he was the head and Jean Cocteau the tail.

Severin Wunderman retells the anecdote with perfect equanimity, which is not surprising, considering that he has spent many millions on Jean Cocteau's art--including a $6-million, mass purchase of 70 works at an auction 18 months ago.

However, having just told the Picasso story in the Irvine offices of the Wunderman Group of companies--which makes watches for Gucci and other chichi outlets--Wunderman said he sees the comet configuration the other way around.

"To me," he said, his voice as soft as a Gucci loafer, "Cocteau is the comet and Picasso the tail." Some might find his comparison of Picasso and Cocteau as artists preposterous. But when the Belgian-born Wunderman, 49, was an 18-year-old watch salesman living in Paris, he picked up a copy of a novel by Cocteau--a writer, film maker, stage designer and artist who was perhaps one of the 20th-Century's most impressive dilettantes--he was smitten. A few weeks later, he bought a Cocteau drawing and now owns about 400 drawings, paintings and ceramic pieces. He displays them in two rooms at the company that he has converted into the Severin Wunderman Museum.

A Cocteau boomlet is under way, Wunderman believes. Bookstores are carrying two new volumes on the artist that came out this year--his diaries and an overview called "Jean Cocteau and His World." Building on the publications, Wunderman hopes to increase his hero's posthumous stature in February, 1989, when--together with UC Irvine--he is organizing a festival honoring the centenary anniversary of Cocteau's birth.

The festival will reflect the wide range of Cocteau's endeavors, with operas, ballets and movies. Lecturers will examine the artist's legacy and read his poetry. Tony Clark, the full-time curator of Wunderman's collection, said the chief film curator from New York City's Museum of Modern Art will be there, as well as composer Virgil Thomson, who will give a talk.

And if Wunderman concludes that the UC Irvine program is a success--"if Orange County shows support"--he might build the free-standing museum for the works in the county. If support is lacking, he may move the whole kit and caboodle to Miami or one of the other cities he said are eager for its very own Cocteau museum.

"We're open to the world," said Wunderman, who moved his local offices from Beverly Hills to Irvine two years ago. "We are already internationally renown. Nowhere can you see all this artwork by Cocteau outside of France. We are more than a gallery. We are an institute for the study of Cocteau. People must come here to see this artwork."

He noted that the museum on Mason Drive in Irvine is free and open to the public by appointment (714-472-1138) but soon will charge an as-yet-undetermined entrance fee.

Cocteau, considered a cinematic innovator in film, made such highly original films as "Le Sang d'un Poete" (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) and "La Belle et la Bete" (The Beauty and the Beast, 1946). He wrote plays, including "Orphee" (Orpheus, 1926), and helped write and designed the original production of Igor Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" of 1927.

Even Wunderman acknowledged that Cocteau is not best known for his artwork.

"In the United States, he is only recognized as the father of New Wave cinema, and in France he is known as a major literary figure, but, yes, I admit, he is virtually unknown as an artist.

"He is a very good artist. One thing that is important is that the line in the drawings is always his line. You see this drawing of Yul Brynner. See how much it actually looks like Yul Brynner? To me, that is so impressive."

Many drawings in the Wunderman collections are Cocteau's doodles of actor Brynner and other celebrities of his day, including Stravinsky and singer Edith Piaf. It is hard to say that they are particularly good drawings or even that the line is, as Wunderman claims, very distinctive. Sometimes Cocteau draws vaguely like Picasso (some ceramics are a lot like those of Picasso, who taught the craft to Cocteau). Often, the drawings are mere doodles.

The painting Wunderman said is his most prized possession-- Madame Favini et sa fille, 1953--also looks like bad Picasso. If it had not been painted by Cocteau, one would have to believe, it perhaps wouldn't be hanging anywhere at all.

Wunderman said: "He was always the first one to say, 'I am not a painter! I am a poet!' As I said, the thing I like in his work is that you can recognize the person. You see this. It is Artur Rubinstein, and it looks like Artur Rubinstein."

One of the most interesting parts of the Wunderman collection is a series of curious, energetic drawings in a surrealist style that Cocteau completed while undergoing detoxification for opium addiction. In the drawings, human figures become a quirky, even grotesque jumble of broken opium pipes, frightening and quite funny and the same time.

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