Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar’s latest exhibition responds to the work of French polymath Jean Cocteau. Virginia Blackburn travels to the Cote d’Azur to meet the artist and his muse
“The sea,” says the French/Iranian artist Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar, gesturing out at an exceptionally beautiful cove on the Cote d’Azur, “is a symbol and a direction of life. It’s where we all came from. As long as you are facing the sea you are on the right track.” And it is not just Behnam-Bakhtiar who is facing the Med: beside him is Jean Cocteau, or at least a representation of Cocteau, leading a line of luminaries from the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to face out at the spectacular view.
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Inside the house, Cocteau is in conversation with Behnam-Bakhtiar, for this exhibition, Oneness Wholeness with Jean Cocteau, has its roots in a video Behnam-Bakhtiar came across that Cocteau made in 1962; the younger artist discovered that his preoccupations and fears about the way the world was going were identical to the older man’s. And so the idea took root.
Oneness Wholeness with Jean Cocteau, which runs from 6th to 30th September is comprised of two aspects, visual and aural. The visual element is spread throughout the villa and its grounds: it consists of 32 wooden sculptures in six different sizes, representing both the historical figures who visited the villa when Cocteau and its owner, the socialite Francine Weisweiller, lived there, and what could be termed humanity itself.
Each sculpture is double sided, to represent the masculine and feminine aspects of the individual, although it is up to the viewer to decide which is which; the wood is bois marine, or sea wood, the type used to make boats. It was treated three times and then painted in Behnam-Bakhtiar’s signature style, embodying energy, stripe after stripe of differing colours fighting to make their way through to the top. “I didn’t want the sculptures to be super-clean but artisanal,” explains Behnam-Bakhtiar, adding that the work took nearly a year and changed him in the process. “So many great things came out: who are we? What are we doing here? Why these sculptures?” he says.
Inside the villa the recorded conversation between the two artists takes place, in which they discuss their fears about the almost robotic world in which we live, the emphasis on material success despite the very high price it exacts. The setting could not be more appropriate: Cocteau’s extravagant murals cover the walls and the ceiling; outside his mosaics bring the myth of the minotaur to mind. One mosaic is doubleheaded, which is reflected in Behnam-Bakhtiar’s double sided sculptures, that dual identity being a preoccupation with both men.
To walk among the sculptures in their stillness, their complexity, induces a feeling of eternity, of contemplation, of timelessness. Visitors to the exhibition will be encouraged to do exactly that, imparting their own life energy to the statuary as they make their way towards the imposing figure of Cocteau, slightly taller than the rest.
One figure stands out for a slightly different reason: he is covered in shades of black, although some colour is struggling to get through. “He had it a little rougher than the others,” says Behnam-Bakhtiar. To the viewer he symbolises death, but with hope – the light is trying to break in, even here.
This is a remarkable exhibition based on a brave and remarkable concept: artists in conversation across decades, sharing the same space. And catch it while you can because the group will be broken up at the end of it, dispersed among museums and collectors, while the villa is closing for a couple of years for major renovations. It is a treat, visually, and balm for the soul.