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IRVINE'S SECRET: JEAN COCTEAU TREASURE TROVE : Belgian-Born Severin Wunderman Has Amassed the Artist's Work in a High-Rise

March 25, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

To the casual visitor, the industrial expanse east of the San Diego Freeway known as the Irvine Spectrum area appears as nothing more than another example of high-tech, exurban development.

Yet, there are surprises in here, including a museum that is one of the most distinctive and compelling of all Orange County destinations.

11 to 12:30: It's doubtful that you have heard the name Severin Wunderman. He's actually a Belgian-born businessman and Laguna Beach resident who has little desire for the limelight.

Give up? OK then, how about the name Jean Cocteau. Bing! Cocteau, who died in 1963, was undoubtedly one of the seminal art figures of the 20th Century, a poet, playwright, painter, artist and visionary. Wunderman has devoted a large part of his life to amassing the works of Cocteau, and making them available to the public.

Few people realize that the Severin Wunderman Museum, housed in a high-rise office building in the Irvine Spectrum area, holds the world's largest collection of Cocteau's art. It's a most amazing collection.

The Severin Wunderman Museum opened its doors to the public in 1985, and today showcases exhibits of works by Cocteau himself, or of artists whose works relate directly or indirectly to those produced by Cocteau.

The artist's shattering genius is depicted in a series of rotating displays through his many media oeuvres: pastels, drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures, theater masks, lithographs, tapestries, manuscripts, books and films. The museum also houses a small bookshop, and occasionally hosts seminars and lectures.

Cocteau was a fascinating character. According to museum publicist Mary Crost, "friends like Proust, Stravinsky, Picasso and Satie influenced him greatly, and often collaborated with him."

His film "La Belle et La Bete" (Beauty and the Beast) is considered one of the classics of French cinema. His tapestry, "Judith et Holophernes," an enormous wool work occasionally on display here, is based on the biblical story of Judith and is widely regarded as a 20th-Century masterpiece. It's hard to imagine a more prolific or diverse talent.

Any tour here begins at the front desk, where visitors must sign in and receive a badge. Even the lobby is extraordinary, filled as it is with French poster art from the '20s and '30s, original lithographs and other works. The museum is on the mezzanine level. A famous Dali metal sculpture, "Venus with a Head of Roses," sits in front of the entrance.

Inside the three rooms, you can currently view the exhibition entitled "Dance in Cocteau's Era," which opened March 15 and runs through June 15. This exhibit is somewhat of an anomaly for the museum, in the sense that the majority of the works displayed are not by Cocteau himself. (Examples: An oil painting of the recently deceased Nureyev by Cecil Beaton; a color photo of the Chinese Conjurer from Cocteau's ballet "Parade." In addition, there are numerous pencil sketches and line drawings.)

On June 20, the works of 100-year old ceramist Beatrice Wood, said to be the country's oldest living major artist, will be featured.

12:30 to 2: After a healthy whiff of culture like this one, nothing delights the spirit like a leisurely outdoor meal. Tutto Fresco is in the Tri Pointe Center, about one mile away. It's a simple Italian cafe distinguished by a wonderful outdoor patio, complete with comfy outdoor tables shielded from the hot Irvine sun by gaudy parasols.

The cafe is run by a couple, Umberto and Colleen Ortoli. Umberto's Italian roots probably have a hand in the authenticity of the food here, largely hearty peasant fare with none of the lofty pretensions or busy flavors of more ambitious restaurants.

The undisputed star at Tutto Fresco is pollo allo spiedo, the cafe's savory rotisserie chicken, served with wonderfully chunky herbed potatoes.

Pizzas are the 10-inch, thin crust variety, basic ones like Margherita, with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and oregano, or a strongly perfumed ai funghi with mushrooms. Together with sides of insalata Cesare, creamy Caesar salad ($1.50), they make a perfect light lunch for two.

Pastas to try include ravioli al formaggio, ($4.95) round pockets of dough with a ricotta cheese filling, or farfalle al pesto, ($5.45), delicious bow-tie pasta with olive oil, Parmesan cheese, garlic and pine nuts. The Ortolis make a mean cappuccino, too, so you might be tempted to linger well beyond the point of reasonableness.

Sitting out on this patio, watching the high-powered business types pull up in their Lexuses and Mercedeses, will not remind you of Cocteau's Paris or even Pavarotti's Rome, but it will make you feel as if you have spent an extremely cultured afternoon.

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