Christian Bérard came into my life in my adolescent years. I became fascinated by the ease of the lines and the colors of his drawings in old fashioned magazines. At that time I did not know, nor did I care, who the author was. The unfinished elegance of his work appeared to me simple to reproduce and I filled pages and pages of paper with elongated female figures, house porticoes and skylines. I did so with the fervor of the unashamed imitator and the awkward naiveté of my age.
Little did I know that I was copying one of those figures emblematic of a period brimming with creative individuals. Known mainly for his costume and theatre designs of the two decades preceding the Second World War, his talents extended to painting and interior design and his friendships were as varied as his gifts. Eccentric, larger than life and a tad unkempt, he was pulled down by a melancholy temperament that his opium sessions with Jean Cocteau helped relieve.
When he was asked by Jean Genet to design the sets for the first production of “The Maids” 1947, he had just completed the decors for Jean Cocteau’s lyrical film “La Belle et la Bête”. Bérard infused the tale of the maid and her encounter with the beast with a dreamlike atmosphere, of haunting and baroque forms. He shared with Cocteau a lifestyle and sensibility complex and poetic. They also had in common handsome and artistic partners. The actor Jean Marais was Cocteau’s long term lover as Berard’s was Boris Kochno, a former member of the Ballets Russes, full of Slavic intensity and dramatic good looks.
His influence reached a young Yves Saint-Laurent, who saw his set for Louis Jouvet’s production of “L’école des femmes” by Molière in Oran and experienced a revelation. The world of fashion owes him an equally great debt: Schiaparelli and Chanel called on him to illustrate their designs. In 1939, together with Jean-Michel Franck, with whom he frequently collaborated, he decorated the walls of the famous Guérlain Institute.
In painting, his work acquires a surprising intensity and depth. His seductive illustrations give way in his portraits to a sophisticated technique, where the psychology of the sitter and the chromatic choices are explored in search of a revealing emotion. Bebé, as his friends endearingly called him, left a legacy larger than his stylish and fashionable portfolios. He produced work that challenged stereotypical trends and without much meditation on the meaning of art, he expressed more than many intellectual artists of his time did. He was applying the finishing touches for a new play directed by his friend Louis Jouvet at the Théâtre Marigny, when he suddenly collapsed and died. He was only 47 years old. Destiny found it appropriate to organize his departure in such a location. This time he was no longer the creator of the setting but its protagonist.