Before and After: Palais Garnier Opera House’s Ceiling

On the 23rd of September 1964 André Malraux, French minister of cultural affairs, inaugurated the new Palais Garnier Opera House’s ceiling painted by Marc Chagall in the auditorium.

Covering 240 m2 this modern ceiling made by 12 panels was – and still is – covering completely the original decoration made in the 19th century by the painter Jules-Eugene Lenepveau.

To say that this new ceiling “aroused polemics” is underestimating the situation. The scandal was so big that it is still quite vivid nowadays. If you know what happened with the Louvre’s pyramid and the Eiffel Tower you know how Parisians can be difficult to handle when it comes to Art&Architecture drama!

The inspiration for this redecoration was given to Malraux by the set and the costumes created by Chagall for Ravel’s ballet Daphny and Chloe, performed at the Opera House in 1960. Apparently during the premiere, the minister looked at the mythological representation in the ceiling and realised that the extremely academic image of The Muses and the Hours of the day and night could and should be replaced by something more modern and in line with his ideas of modernisation. During the intermission Malraux asked to his long-time friend Chagall to do it and the artist eventually accepted the job.

Polemics started very soon. Many people declared that the simple idea of the new ceiling was a “sacrilege” against the architect of the Opera House, Charles Garnier, and the artist Lenepveau; others stigmatised the “artificial modernity” of the new ceiling; others blamed the idea of modernisation itself, in all its aspects. Some attacks were so violent that Chagall was forced to paint his work in secret and under military protection and Malraux had to accept the idea to protect the former ceiling mounting the new one on a plastic (and removable) armature meaning that there was a possible turning back.

Actually, in my opinion, Chagall’s composition fully reflects the spirit of the building, representing at the same time a huge rupture of its harmony. Composed by twelve panels encircling a centra disc, the new ceiling pays a tribute to fourteen composers, bringing on the homage to composers started by Garnier himself. The composition actually introduced to this “pantheon” composers “forgotten” before (like Wagner, who did not find a place in the original decoration due to the war between France and Germany). Concerning the colours – described by Andre Breton as “admirable prismatic colours” – they are the ones cherished by Garnier himself. In a little book edited by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux you can read “ there exists a profound relationship between painter and architect: like Garnier, Chagal is lyrical. His painting is, to borrow Apollinaire’s words, “supernatural” as is Garnier’s enchanted palace”. If you’ve ever visited the Opera House or if you take a look at picture of it, you can really understand it.

Chagall work shows a perfect continuity with the spirit of the building representing at the same time a huge rupture with the armony of the auditorium.Even if many people declared that the new canvas mounted on a plastic armature was a “sacrilage” against Charles Garnier, the architect of the Opera House, and the artist Lenepveau,

So now, what team are you? Lenepveau Classicism or Chagall Surrealism?

If you would like to know something more about the Opera House contact me!

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