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The triumph of Marc Chagall in the Paris Opera: How the Belarusian artist painted the ceiling in the Grand Opera

The Parisian opera has been shining with its magnificence for more than a decade when Movsha Chotskelevich Chagall was born in a poor Jewish family in the Belarusian city of Vitebsk. It will take a little more than a century, and his art will be appreciated not only by visitors to the famous French theater, but also by connoisseurs of expensive watches – Chagall’s work literally passed the test of time.

Past Grand Opera, André Malraux and Marc Chagall

The old building of the Paris Opera on Le Pelletier Street once fell out of favor with Napoleon III – it was there that the attempt was made on the President of the French Republic in 1858. That is why a competition was held for the best architectural project of the New Opera, and then the unknown Charles Garnier won. In 1875, a tall building with a glittering gold dome was opened to the public, and in 1989 it received the name Opera Garnier in honor of the architect.

Charles Garnier, architect, and Jules-Eugene Lenevaux, artist

The interiors of the Opera were decorated in the same lush “style of Napoleon III” as the building itself, and the ceiling of the dome of the auditorium was painted by the artist Jules-Eugene Lenevè. The composition included images of twelve muses and Apollo and was called “Muses and hours of day and night.” But after some time, the ceiling was damaged, and in 1963 the Minister of Culture of France, Andre Malraux, decided to update the auditorium of the Grand Opera. For the painting of the plafond of the auditorium, he invited Marc Chagall.

Old ceiling by Lenevo

The artist, who was born in Vitebsk in 1887, came to Paris at twenty-four years for scholarships, studied at the masters of modernity, lived in the famous hostel “Beehive”, organized an exhibition of his works. Then Chagall began to call himself Mark. Some time later, he left to return in 1923 at the invitation of the collector and patron of the arts Ambroise Vollard, and the subsequent life of Chagall was firmly linked with France and its capital. In addition to the paintings, Chagall created sculptures, designed stained glass windows, created decorations for musical performances – apparently, this prompted the minister’s candidature of the artist to update the Opera ceiling.

The main staircase of the Paris Opera

The decision was quite bold – the artist represented an avant-garde art movement, and opponents of such a choice voiced arguments about the incompatibility of Chagall’s style with the historical value of the Parisian theater. But Andre Malraux was no stranger to making difficult decisions. This statesman proved himself on the battlefields of the Second World War and became an ally of Charles le Gaulle. In addition, he was a writer, many books belong to him, including the work “The Lot of Man”, which in 1933 was awarded the Goncourt Prize.

Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture of France

New ceiling
Work on the new ceiling, which area was 220 square meters, took a year; the 77-year-old Chagall worked with three assistants. The composition of the work was conventionally divided into five color sectors – green, blue, yellow, red, white.

Five color sectors of the new ceiling depicted scenes from musical works

The combination of different styles allowed to create in the Opera auditorium a special atmosphere.

In each sector, there was a scene or heroes from classic works – Boris Godunov Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet and several others who glorified the scene of the Paris Opera and world music in general. Besides them, Chagall depicted the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Opera building itself. There you can see the figures of the artist himself and the customer of the work – Malraux. The work of Lenev was not destroyed at the same time – Chagall created his work on 24 removable panels that were installed over the old painting of the ceiling.

The opening of the renovated hall was held on September 23, 1964, the chandelier was lit during the orchestra’s performance of the “Jupiter’s Symphony” by Mozart, one of the artist’s favorite works. The lighted ceiling made the most favorable impression on the public. The combination of the baroque interior of the hall and the avant-garde painting of Chagall turned out to be interesting, breathed new life into the atmosphere of the auditorium, without in any way harming its former glory. However, the critic also didn’t do without critical reviews; the artist was even accused of wanting to get rich at the expense of taxpayers. True, Chagall did not receive any payment for the design of the ceiling.

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