[email protected] - Brass monkeys in Geneva and Jean Cocteau in Menton

February 2008


Menton’s micro-climate brings clement weather at the end of the year and you can happily eat breakfast and lunch on the terrace with an overwhelming feel-good factor from the knowledge that the bitter cold winds that freeze the balls off a brass monkey have been left behind in Switzerland.
Now, before you accuse me of using rude language, freezing the balls off a brass monkey doesn’t refer to a brass monkey asking the whereabouts of a good welder, but it pertains to the old wooden fighting ships of yore. Cannonballs were placed beside the guns on a large brass ring called a monkey and when the weather was very cold the brass shrank and the cannonballs rolled off. To use Michael Caine, the actor’s pet phrase, ‘not many people know that!’
Mind you, as always, I woke up on Christmas morning and, as I’ve done since I was a naÏve young boy in short trousers, peeked outside hoping to discover a deep layer of snow. Not surprisingly, all I could see was a clear blue sky, bright sunshine, oranges, lemons and the first signs of my favourite bloom, mimosa.
Nevertheless, one day we were treated to a torrential downpour and having exhausted my reading matter during the annual fattening festivities I decided to visit the Jean Cocteau exhibition at the Bastion at Menton’s port. The exhibition is an appetizer for a forthcoming permanent exhibition that will comprise more than 1,700 pieces collection including 623 drawings, 255 engravings, 3 stained-glass windows, 70 posters, 51 prints, 30 illustrated books, 12 sculptures, 30 oil paintings, 14 ceramics, 425 photographs, 4 tapestries and, surprise, surprise, 9 watches! This magnificent and unique collection has been donated to the town by an avid art collector, one of the watch industry’s innovators, Severin Wunderman, Chairman of Corum.
So why Menton? Well it appears that Mr Wunderman gave the collection to the American town of Austin, Texas on the proviso that a museum would be built to accommodate it. However, after ten years and no museum in sight, he withdrew the collection and offered it to Menton after a chance meeting with the town’s Deputy Mayor, Jean-Claude Guibal – an idyllic choice given that Jean Cocteau had a close relationship with both Menton and a couple of its inhabitants. As of today, the local authorities have already approved a budget for the development of a site of more than 5,000 m2 between the town’s covered market and the sea that will include the ‘MusÉe Jean Cocteau – Collection SÉverin Wunderman’.
Severin Wunderman is, as many a visitor to BaselWorld will testify, a prolific art collector and he purchased his first Cocteau oeuvre way back in the 1960s in Brussels, which I have on good authority left him without any money to see the month out. But as we all know, Severin Wunderman went on to become an influential man in the watch industry with his launch and development of Gucci watches - the industry’s first fashion watches and the first stainless steel wristwatches to be decorated with diamonds – which almost certainly gave him the financial clout necessary to further develop his impressive collection.
As it happens, I have an artist friend who recently had an exhibition in a London gallery and after the second week he called the gallery to find out how the show was going. “Well,” the gallery owner said, “I’ve got some great news for you. A man came in and asked whether or not your work would increase in value after your death. When I said I thought it would he bought the entire show of twenty paintings.”
“That’s marvellous,” my friend screamed excitedly down the telephone. After a moments silence, the gallery owner said, “The only problem is the man’s your doctor!”
And if you don’t find that funny, join the club. I went with him to see The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Leonardo Da Vinci’s cartoon that dates back to 1510. Well I know times change, but I couldn’t see the bloody joke!

Photo: “Madame Favini et sa fille” by Jean Cocteau

Source: Europa Star February-March 2008 Magazine Issue