Fifty years ago, French Culture Minister André Malraux pulled the trigger, commissioning Marc Chagall to create a new ceiling painting for the Paris opera house that's today best known by the name Opéra Garnier.
The "Garnier" in the name comes from the name of its architect Charles Garnier; it's also known as the Palais Garnier, the title used in the building's Wikipedia entry, here.
The teacher of my undergraduate History of Architecture class hated the place. It was "dishonest" in that its metal framing was covered by ornate stone surfaces. And that grand staircase? ... an abomination of utterly superfluous ornamentation, a confusing mix of different marbles, all of it intended for the pleasure of Louis-Napoléon's aristocracy. That dolt Garnier should have been inspired by the iron-and-glass train sheds at those gares popping up on the right bank not so far from the opera site: those structures were honest, true to their materials and function.
By the time I actually visited the Opéra Garnier the architectural history teacher's work had long since rung hollow. I enjoyed the building. Sure, it probably was a bit over-done, but that was part of its charm.
However, there was one jarring note: that replacement ceiling painting by Chagall. I found Chagall's ceiling totally out of character with the rest of the auditorium it covers.
What could Malraux have been thinking? I suspect it was the groupthink of the late 1950s that included my architectural history indoctrination. Modernism is the only true path; the 19th century was a crazed attempt to preserve classical forms while technological change was sweeping away their underpinnings; the uncomprehending masses need re-education in order for them to comprehend these truths that really ought to be obvious.
Worse for me, even in the days when I'd pretty much bought into modernist ideology, I never thought that Chagall was more than a second- or even third-rate artist. I'll probably get around to writing a post dealing with him, so for now just accept that I'm biased against the guy's work.
So what was there before Chagall worked his magic? About what one would expect: A ceiling filled with classical figures swirling around up there where looking at it strains one's neck and where it's hard to figure out what's going on anyway. Note that this is the case for ceiling art in general.
The original painting was done by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu and titled "The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night."
And its sad fate? Apparently it still exists. It can be found under Chagall's painting according to this source.
The last link is a comprehensive account of the building and the art it contains and is well worth browsing. I would have extracted some quotes from it, but the poster guarded it with some strongly-worded copyright warnings that made me chicken out. Let me add that he too is not amused by the Chagall ceiling.
To illustrate what's at stake, below are a study for the original ceiling and a photo showing most of the Chagall ceiling.
Finally, I need to mention that in order to fully understand the controversy, you need to tour the opera house and view the present ceiling in the context of both the rest of the room and entire building.