Friday, 27 April 2012

Jean Cocteau in Leicester Square

Tucked away in a side street off Leicester Square, next door to the Prince Charles cinema, is Notre Dame de Paris, the main Catholic church for French nationals visiting and living in London, also known as the French Church. Stone steps and a fairly bland facade give no hint of what you might find inside, but this eccentric mural is just one of the surprises hidden away from the tourists.It's currently being restored, which is why the altar is covered with bottles and brushes. It's absolutely nothing like an English church. When I visited on a Sunday afternoon, a colourful collection of people were variously praying, sitting quietly or chatting together loudly in groups, while disembodied organ music came from somewhere up in the dome. Nobody else seemed to be there for sightseeing reasons.

The mural was painted by Jean Cocteau, French poet, artist, dramatist and film maker. Painted directly onto the plaster with the lines seeming to bleed into the surface, Cocteau had clearly established his regular style by this time. It depicts standard scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion, but the interesting thing is the way the figures are portrayed. Look for eyes drawn as fishes, faces gazing upwards with eyeballs protruding, figures joined together, wispy beards, rounded and protruding body parts - lips, nipples, backsides - carefully exaggerated. You only see Christ's feet: the dominant figures in the crucifixion scene are the Roman centurions, nun-like characters, and what might be a self-portrait.

The church was badly damaged by bombing in WWII and rebuilt in a strange blend of neoclassical and Art Deco styles, keeping the original circular shape of the damaged building (once a Georgian panorama). Cocteau, by then an old man, was commissioned to do the mural when the building work was finished. There's an entertaining notice in the church describing how he surprised visitors to the church by talking to his characters as he worked. It took him only a week to finish the painting, in November 1959. He signed it in 1960, the same year his last film was showing in cinemas nearby.


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