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The Art of Tattooing a House (or the Mansion Painted by Cocteau, Matisse, Picasso and Chagall)


‘La villa Santo Sopir’ is a short Cocteau film about the summer house he shared and “tattooed,” with friends for 12 years.

A house in the village of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, on the French Riviera, as fate would have it, was intervened upon by some of the most extraordinary artists of the past century. A tribute to the unique project was made by the multi-faceted Jean Cocteau in a short film, La Vila Santo Sospir (1952), an audiovisual jewel on the process of collective creativity that took place there.

The luxurious beach house belonged to a Madame Francine Weisweiller, a Parisian society lady and the patron of several artists of the time, among them, Yves Saint-Laurent. She was also the cousin of Nicole Stéphane, who’d acted in the film Les enfants terribles directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and based on Cocteau’s novel of the same name. In fact, it was Stéphane who had introduced the artist to the wealthy Weisweiller (she was immediately pleased) and began, unknowingly, this curious story.

In 1949, Madame Weisweiller invited Cocteau to visit her house in the south of France. The artist found himself wandering the luxurious mansion until one day, “tired of leisure,” he asked permission from his hostess to paint the head of Apollo, the Greek god, above the fireplace in the living room. What seemed a brief visit to the house of a generous acquaintance then became the project that would last some 12 years. It would include collaborations from several other artists who would “tattoo” almost all the walls, the doors and ceilings of the Villa Santo Sospir.

The first intervention was such a success, it was decided that Cocteau should decorate all the walls of the house at the insistence of his colleague. “If you decorate one wall of a room, you must do them all,” Henri Matisse suggested him, he too would end up contributing to the decoration of the house, as did Picasso and Chagall.

The creation of this modernist, “exquisite corpse” is the central theme of Jean Cocteau’s 40-minute short film, La Villa Santo-Sospir. Just eight years later, he would produce his final film Testament of Orpheus, in that same house. In the earlier film, a visit to the house is narrated by its “tattooist,” and the strange cinematographic piece also allows viewers a glimpse at Cocteau’s sense of humor and eccentric personality.

Nearly all the images delineated within the house come from Greek mythology, (mosaics in the house’s entrance depict the face of Orpheus, and in Madame Weisweiller’s chamber, Cocteau drew a shepherd). But there are also decorations in marine and nautical motifs. The skin for the walls, the body for the house, this mansion tattooed by Cocteau and his friends, is a witness to an epoque, a time of art, and some of the era’s most powerful minds.


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