Hidden inside a stark office building in an Orange County industrial park is an unlikely jewel: a small art museum with the largest collection of its kind outside of France.
The Irvine museum is different from the more traditional art institutions in most respects, being small (only two rooms), private, open by appointment only, and dedicated to exhibiting the work of only one man.
But when the Severin Wunderman Foundation museum opens its doors for the first time Monday, it is expected to draw art lovers from all over the globe who want to see the work of an artist who claimed to have influenced Pablo Picasso.
He is Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a French film-maker, painter, set designer, poet and writer who is relatively unknown outside his native country.
Wunderman, a Belgian businessman who recently moved his successful business of manufacturing and marketing Gucci watches to Irvine, is an avid Cocteau collector.
“It’s really been a lifetime dream of his,” assistant museum director Liz Harvey said.
“The purpose is to show what we have and to create a universal research center for the study of the life and works of Cocteau.”
Although the museum has done little to advertise its opening, dozens of Cocteau’s cult followers have heard about it and booked nearly all the tours for the first two weeks.
Cocteau is best-known as a film maker, the father of the French “new wave cinema” who made “The Blood of a Poet” (1930) and “Beauty and the Beast” (1945).
But he also collaborated in a variety of media with many famous artists, including Picasso and composer Igor Stravinsky, both of whom worked with Cocteau on operas, ballets, stage sets and posters.
“He was a catalyst for a lot that happened in the ‘20s,” Harvey said. “He offers a very rare look at a part of history.”
Museum director Tony Clark compares Cocteau to Leonardo da Vinci because of his wide range of work, from ceramics to stained glass windows and from paintings to poetry.
“Cocteau was really a Renaissance man in creating so many arts and crafts and so many themes,” he said.
Wunderman has purchased over the last several years about 500 artworks, including masks, ceramics, watercolors, tapestries, manuscripts, films, lithographs and paintings.
The Irvine museum boasts the largest Cocteau collection outside of France and the only one in the world with such a wide variety.
Three-hundred of the artworks will be on display at the museum at 3 Mason in Irvine.
The museum will also be open to scholars and has a computerized, cross-referenced list of all Cocteau’s works and all the works he collaborated on with other famous artists.
Even before the museum has opened, scholars from France have come to use the museum for research for a book on Cocteau, Clark said.
Clark said there is no way to determine the value of the collection, which Wunderman began when he was 19.
Works Resemble Picasso’s
He said visitors will notice how Cocteau’s line drawings resemble the work of Picasso, which he said is no mere coincidence between the two close friends.
“Many people say this is so much like Picasso,” he said. “But Cocteau said, ‘That’s because Picasso imitates me.’
“But he (Cocteau) also said, ‘Picasso was my teacher,”’ Clark said.
Visitors are asked to call in advance for docent tours at (714) 472-0900 or to send in a card with their name and address. Appointments are limited due to lack of space in the museum itself, a small staff and lack of parking.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.