I recently received as a gift a book called Quiet London by Siobhan Wall (2010), a compendium of places in which to escape the noise and din. Inspired, Wall says, by the French situationist Guy Debord, she directs the frazzled flaneur to the city’s less-frequented museums, galleries, libraries and places of worship.
Which brings me, meanderingly, to the French poet, painter, playwright, novelist, designer and cineaste Jean Cocteau, hiding up a side street off Leicester Square. This particular enclave of the City of Westminster is, perhaps, the spiralling hell-hole par excellence from which Wall would deliver us, where tourists flock under the impression that it is the centre of the centre – the real London – which seems doubly cruel considering its denomination is so difficult for non-English speakers to pronounce. Here, they will find authentic Londonese deep-pan pizzas; Chinese restaurants exhibiting deeply tanned ducks; multiplex cinemas showing everything and anything at once (as long as its budget is big); and one cinema up a side street which plays The Sound of Music on loop.
But concealed up the same side street is the Church of Notre-Dame de France – blitzed in the 1940s and rebuilt in the mid-50s. And here, if only they knew to look, passers-by would find a mural painted by Jean Cocteau over the course of eight days in November 1959, when he was in London promoting his film Le Testament d’Orphee, the final part of an Orphic Trilogy, which includes The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orphée (1950).
The media clamour around Cocteau then was such that scaffolding had to be erected around the entrance to the church to enable him to work in silence. He would arrive, so the story goes, at 10am every day, light a candle in the chapel, and could then be heard whispering to his figures as they took shape beneath his brush.
Spanning three walls, the mural depicts a crucifixion scene, with shapely Roman soldiers, their nipples erect, who would not be out of place in an advert for Jean Paul Gaultier; swooning women, their eyes cast down, weeping blood, or with their heads thrown back, irises straining towards the heavens.
Of Christ, only his frail legs and feet are shown, dripping blood onto a red rose positioned at the base of the Cross. Slightly off-centre and below the line of vision is Cocteau himself, a self-portrait in which the artist’s ambivalence to Catholicism seems palpable: with his back to the Cross, his brow is furrowed and his left eyebrow raised. To his right, a game of dice plays on the odds. If his expression is one of scepticism, his lips are pursed and tightly sealed. These are light strokes on cool concrete from which no answers can issue, but there are echoes, nonetheless, of Cocteau’s epitaph in the Chapelle Saint-Blaise-des-Simples in Milly-la-Forêt where he is buried: “Je reste avec vous”.
Siobhan Wall’s missive, put forth in her Introduction, was to discover locations in which “both time and space seemed suspended”. Cocteau’s mural in the Church of Notre-Dame de France, in London, just off Leicester Square, on a Sunday afternoon in October is just such a place. Cocteau himself remarked that as he was painting there, time seemed to stand still around him and, leaving the church once the project was complete, he reportedly said “I shall never forget that wide open heart of Notre Dame de France and the place you allowed me to take within it”.