Monday, November 15, 2010

What Garnier Created, Chagall Desecrated

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.

Postcard view of the opera house, early 1900s.

Lenepveu ceiling; study or reproduction.

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.


bryanD said...

"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."

I understand you completely: Chagall's colorful ceiling motif would make a lovely soup bowl.

I agree.

David Apatoff said...

Apart from his rank sentiment which I understand resonates with certain audiences, it's hard for me to understand the great appeal of Chagall's work.

Malraux seems to have wanted to shake things up a bit, mixing old and new, but Chagall's compositions are clearly too weak to hold their own in a highly decorated environment like that. His only hope of claiming the space is with his tradmark gaudy (and often tasteless) colors.

Donald Pittenger said...

David -- Sorry for the delay in posting your comment; I was driving from below the Bay Area to southern Oregon today.

Agreed that Chagall is more hat than cattle.

Many modernists fall into this category, and I'll soon present more examples. Makes one wonder how they might have developed had they not followed the path they did.

David Apatoff said...

Don-- Excellent! That's a subject on which I would really like to see your views.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I never get tired of seeing Chagall's ceiling whenever I return to visit the building. I find that its rich coulours and sense of movement just work perfectly with the opulent surroundings. The style of the painting does constrast of course but that only helps highlighting the Beaux-Arts style surrounding it. And don't forget that Beaux-Arts itself was quite an eclectic collection of elements borrowed from previous centuries and foreign places.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments and I agree with you; the original painting by Lenepveu would suit the splendid architecture and interior. It is still one of the most beautiful places I have visited, and to enjoy a performance in it, a treat for life....

Anonymous said...

I saw a ballet at Garnier OPera and I finally understood (I am an art historian) the beauty and sense of Chagall's work. The whole, original decorative system is very rigid as Eclecticism usually is, and Chagall's painting, so lyrical, so poetic brings the oxygen of the Modern Art to a XIX century building. I think a view like yours is, no hard feelings, petite burgeois.

Mark Jabara Ellison said...

If it's petit bourgeois (actual spelling) to prefer the architect's original vision, over the inappropriate scribbling of Chagall, then I wear the title with pride. Chagall's ceiling is a travesty and made me laugh the first time I saw it.

Kayla Suverkrubbe said...

I know this is way past the time this blog post was made, but I would like to give my two cents.

I recently saw the Chagall exhibit in Dallas. I think he is a brilliant artist who knows how to utilize color and create a very atomspheric piece, making one feel like they are looking into a deep dream that has some hidden revelations in it. I highly respect his work, including his ceramics. I also think his ballet costumes and scene backdrops are awesome and would transport the audience into that dream kind of world.

However, I do not really like his ceiling either. It's way too up high to create the same kind of feeling, and it's charm to me is lost with all the white in it and against that ornateness. I think it just doesn't show off his strengths like the costumes and backdrops and paintings. I have not been to the Opera House and seen it for myself however.

I just think this feels out of context . I think a wall would be better suited for Chagall.

I don't quite understand how one can think Chagall is a second rate artist, though. But that's my opinion.

Christine Daaé said...

I do not know Chagall's work terribly well, but as an avid lover of history, someone who knows how a thing was originally supposed to look and not at all wanting it to change, and, of course, a lover of the Gaston Leroux novel "Le fantôme de l'Opéra", I am very disappointed with the ceiling replacement. Why the change? Was it really necessary? Not to mention the Chagall painting really does not fit in with the rest of the beautiful , victorian opera house. What angers me even more is that the original was painted over by Chagall! Maybe this is just me overreacting, but in my opinion that is vandalism. Chagall's art belongs in a museum, not on the ceiling of the Palais Garnier.

Anonymous said...

To protect the artwork underneath, Chagall’s ceiling was painted on canvas and stretched up on 12 polyester panels placed over the original one.

Eugene Lenepveu’s original is still hidden under Chagall’s artwork.

Anonymous said...

Keep the Chagall and do away with the Palais.

Paul Armesto said...

Whether one likes Chagall or not, his painting clearly does not belong at the Opéra. Only ignorance and bad taste can think otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I love Chagall too, and even this work, the Opera ceiling, but I fully agree with the opinion that it is completely out of character with the rest of the building

Anonymous said...

The Chagall painting is of course a painting to observe, and one that of course took a lot of time. But in contrast, I agree with many other comments that say the Chagall painting does not fit in THIS opera house. I am not saying that it is bad, but clearly is meant for a more MODERN building. I know some people do this, but you shouldn't buy an old house and decorate it with very contemporary furnishings. It just doesn't fit. And it brings less character to the house. So you might as well just get a contemporary house. And when it's an old building like this, it's all about Character and keeping with the time. Maybe one day, Eugene Lenepveu's painting will be uncovered once again. And as for Chagall's painting, it could most likely be taken down some how and put in a Museum for modern arts.