PRINT February 2004



After moving from his native Paris as a boy, Marc Camille Chaimowicz spent the remainder of his youth in the somewhat less exciting surroundings of English new-town suburbia, before going on to art school. His family’s move, coming as it did in the aftermath of World War II, was felt as a bizarre wrench that continues to inform his work. He now divides his time between London and Dijon. With a deep interest in France’s modernist literary legacy yet equally alive to subtle shifts in the terrain of contemporary pop culture, Chaimowicz has, since the early ’70s, defied straightforward categorization in his pursuit of the beautiful. The sexually ambivalent sensibility that suffuses his environments, installations, and performances seduces the viewer into reflection and reverie. Visually rich and precisely observed, the objects and images he designs, makes, and gathers from elsewhere propose connections, set up oppositions, and trace narratives in a dense play of puzzle, metaphor, and interpretative possibility.

As far back as 1976 Chaimowicz paid homage to Jean Cocteau in Fade, performed at London’s ACME Gallery. Complex lighting, a faux-Cocteau backdrop, and disappearing figures referenced the French polymath’s films, particularly Orpheus (1949). In his current project, Jean Cocteau, installed at the Norwich School of Art and Design’s gallery last fall and traveling to Angel Row, Nottingham, in May, Chaimowicz has furnished an imaginary apartment for the poet, filmmaker, and artist, the fortieth anniversary of whose death fell last year. Alongside his own furniture, carpets, ceramics, and sculptural structures, including a double staircase dedicated to the late critic Barbara Reise, Chaimowicz has incorporated period pieces from Breuer and Isokon together with works by Enrico David, Paulina Olowska, Tom of Finland, Cerith Wyn Evans, Warhol, Giacometti, Marie Laurencin, and others, to construct a space that is almost usable yet thoroughly dreamlike.

Michael Archer


A year ago Lynda Morris, director of the Norwich Gallery, reminded me that in the ’70s I had taken her to one of London’s best-kept secrets, a mural commissioned from Cocteau by the French for their Catholic church in London, Notre-Dame-de-France. It’s a little miracle, very competent, very assured—Cocteau at his best. The project then slowly emerged through dialogue with Lynda. I’d never before developed such a complex dialectic between my own practice and the appropriation of other people’s work in order to construct what is, by default, a kind of portrait. I found the experience liberating. That end wall in my installation, for example, with a Warhol, a Stephen Buckley, and the Giacometti lamps: One can stand back and exclaim with joy as to how fabulous it looks, because one’s not burdened by the responsibility of one’s own ego.

I accept that in France the jury is still out on Cocteau. His blatant disengagement from the body politic is problematic. He made some mistakes out of naïveté, I think. For instance, he supported the work of Arno Breker only because he was, at that point in his own career, reassessing the neoclassical. I think the ambivalence with which Cocteau was regarded had a lot to do with the fact that he came from a very well-to-do background. This would have been socially disadvantageous for someone trying to associate himself with the avant-garde. The modernist establishment—André Breton, for one—was very critical of him. It’s presumed this was because of Cocteau’s sexuality, but then Gide was critical of him as well, so he was forever stuck in the middle. And I think one can extend that problematic into Cocteau’s practice. The work is very erratic. His painting, for example, is dire. One has to recognize that, and I briefly comment on it by including artists—Buckley, Nadia Wallis—who have a real feel for painting. I like the idea of labyrinthine possibilities of interpretation and, in a way, a kind of intellectual puzzle in the project. For example, we commissioned Wallis to do a site-specific curtain painting for the show, and as we know, Cocteau was highly involved in the sociability of practice, in commissioning, in exchange, in collaboration.

We deliberated at length about which Warhol to use. Warhol evidently has a place as a kind of surrogate descendant, a symbolic distant relation of Cocteau’s, and yet the “Electric Chair” is so incongruous to the Cocteau sensibility. If nothing else, it’s so American. But Cocteau did have a fascination with death. As an ambulance driver during World War I he initially saw the Belgian front as a kind of Wagnerian scenario, but seeing death for the first time he became imbued with the reality and horror of the day-to-day. Then there was the tragic loss of his young protégé, Raymond Radiguet, which led to a physical decline in Cocteau as well as a spiritual crisis. Warhol therefore becomes more relevant. And then the eye goes, one hopes, from the “Electric Chair” on the far wall to the foreground, where on the rug is a copy of the 1963 Warhol portrait of Cocteau commissioned by Pierre Berger for Libération.

In parallel to dealing with Cocteau, I’m also dealing with a subjectively loaded kind of fiction, a sort of fantasy about that which is Parisian. This has to do with the reclaiming of what I felt had been taken from me in my formative years. If somebody in his early childhood is removed from a particular cultural environment and then has to process that relatively brutal displacement, that person is liable, is he not, to fantasize? During World War II, Cocteau was advised by many of his friends to flee Paris. To his credit he said, “I am Parisian and here I’ll stay,” with all that that implied. He gives specificity to something that in me is nebulous and yet perpetual and powerful. It’s a real pleasure to give materiality to this active inner life, to realize a fictional interior that is both a proposal for habitation and a mindscape.

The ease with which Cocteau could move from one area to another is fascinating to me, as I was educated in an art school tradition wherein something was meritorious only if it was hard-gained. He provides a bridge to the Proustian world of the salon, and yet toward the end of his life he’s not just helping out gutter angels like Piaf, he’s also fascinated by somebody like Jean Genet, partly because Genet could do what he could never do in writing, which is to be explicit. There’s a kind of disappointment, is there not, in what Cocteau did and what we presume him to have done. He was the reverse of the bland figures behind the sophisticated and coherent practices we encounter today. In his case, the persona was more resolved, refined, and complete than the results.