Well, here it is, "Part Deux", devoted to the Palais Garnier and especially the Chagall ceiling. Its a bit long but hopefully not too dull.
If you want to find out more Gerard Fontaine has 2 fabulous books, one about the exterior of the building and the other on the interior and its decorations.
A search on Google or sections of Wikipedia hve tons of information on the building, Charles Garnier and Marc Chagall.
Until this recent trip to Paris I had never visited the Opera Garnier. Oh sure, I’d seen it from the outside and even poked my nose through the front doors to glimpse a few of the statues of famous composers. But I had never seen past this entrance. In the past few years I had noticed in passing by the Opera Garnier, that the exterior was being restored including new gold leaf for the busts of composers around the façade The stonework, sculptures and roof were also being restored. In fact, restoration of the exterior started soon after the beginning of this century. The interior has also been restored, especially the paintings and sculptures. But being a big music and opera enthusiast (mélomane), I thought I finally owed it to myself to see “Le Temple Saint” of opera and ballet.
But now, seeing the new Metier d’Art watches from Vacheron featuring the entire ceiling of Garnier’s auditorium as well as different sections of the ceiling devoted to specific composers, I did not want to miss seeing this Chagall masterpiece in person.
The opera house stands in the heart of Paris, surrounded by four streets (named after opera composers or librettists), intersecting in the shape of a diamond: rue Gluck, rue Halevy, rue Auber and rue Scribe,with the Palais Garnier in the centre. It really is an opulent pantheon to the great French opera and ballet composers, Adolphe Adam, Georges Bizet, Hector Berlioz, Jules Massenet, Leo Delibes, Charles Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Camille Saint-Saens, Jacques Offenbach, Jacques Halevy, Giacomo Meyerbeer to name a few, as well as the many writers and performers who exhibited their prodigious talents within its many walls.
So on this trip Gale and I paid our 9 euros and went in…
I’m going to step back a bit here to give a short introduction to this building. In a sense the Opera Garnier is a museum inside and out. While there is no shortage of fantastic museums in Paris, all wonderful, the features of interest are the contents primarily and the building itself plays a secondary role. With the Palais Garnier, the building, with its construction and history, IS the museum!
The opera house was commissioned by Louis Napolean (Napolean III) and constructed between 1860 and 1875 as part of the overall “renovation” of Paris by Baron Haussmann. It was inaugurated on January 5, 1875. Charles Garnier, a virtual unknown, was the winner of a design competition which included 170 entrants. He was only 35 years old at the time. It was a prodigious achievement crowned by the successful completion of the opera house over the next 15 years. The construction was interrupted several times by the discovery of an underground lake on the site, which still exists, the Franco-Prussian war, the rise of the Paris Commune and the fall of the Empire. The Opera Garnier is also the site of the well-known novel by Gaston Leroux (and later a movie and musical), The Phantom of the Opera.
It is one of the largest theaters in the world by area and volume, 172x125x73.6 meters (564x410x241 feet). The façade is decorated with rose marble, sculptures, busts, friezes and statues. However, it is the interior that I want to dwell upon. Garnier believed that the opera production itself should be preceded by the experience of entering the building and that such an entry should mirror the greatness and grandeur of the opera production itself.
And so we entered this edifice to grand opera, not through the main entrance and the “Grand Staircase”, but through a side door. The first thing that greeted us was this bizarre sight…a frog wearing a dress!
I suppose it wasn’t so strange after all given the location within the opera house. This is the Grotto of Pythonisse, the magician of the opera, located directly beneath the great staircase. The sculpture is the work of Adele D’Affry, duchesse of Castiglione-Colonna but known as Marcello. It was inspired by the soothsayer (Pythie) whom Alexander the Great consulted during his conquest of India.
I quickly discovered that the Palais Garnier frequently has exhibitions and there was one currently ongoing called “L’Etoffe de la Modernité” ( the fabric of modernity). It is a showing of the art of the stage costumes of opera and ballet in the 20th century and features designs from some of the greatests artists of those 100 years: Chagall, Legér, De Chirico, Cocteau, Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo and others. The designs and their realization by the thousands of people who worked tirelessly cutting, sewing, finishing and fitting these costumes have elevated them from mere costumes to haute couture. But the word “étoffe” has a double meaning here. It also means “stuff” as in the “stuff from which heroes are made” as in a great personality or character. So instead of going directly to the grand staircase, we wandered the corridors following this wonderful exhibition. This diversion and divertissement allowed us to see not only the exhibition but the various public spaces surrounding the auditorium...
Finally, the grand staircase came into view and it was time to see what Garnier had intended.
This grand foyer with its imposing vaulted staircase, a vaulted ceiling 30 metres higher (higher than the ceiling in the main amphitheater at 25 metres), sculptures and painted and decorated ceiling is a spectacle itself. Garnier wanted visitors to ascend the staircase, moving ever upward and eventually lifting their gaze to view the ceiling and thus raising the spirits in this setting. He wanted the design to be a grand prelude to the production itself in the auditorium. This foyer is meant to create anticipation and excitement; a preparation for the aural and visual spectacle to follow within.
Part of the staircase, ceiling and one of the torchieres.
The previous three photos show parts of the magnificent ceiling above the staircase.
The ceiling above the staircase, painted in four tableaus including “The Victory of Apollo” were the culmination of the artist Isadore Pils’ career. His vision was to emulate the artists of the Renaissance but with scope of execution that was worthy of Rubens or Valesquez. Garnier sought to harmonize the warmth of the painting with the staircase into a unified experience; “a monument with a monument”, as the press of that era declared. But Garnier’s vision was even grander. He saw the foyer with its staircase and vaulted ceiling as an immense theatrical set and himself the master and director. He saw this grand entry transporting the audience members from the real world into a luxurious fantasy world. He also envisaged the audience members themselves in their splendid finery as part of the scene. As their gaze was directed towards the ceiling it was as if they were seeing into the heavens and the world of Apollo, Minerva, and Orpheus.
One should explore this grand entrance thoroughly, climb the staircase, examining the multiple types of marble and onyx, the torchieres, and the ceiling with its beautiful paintings. Then examine it again from one of the balconies for a different perspective. Try to imagine what it would have been like on opening night.
There are two other areas I want to mention briefly before getting to the Chagall ceiling: The Grand Foyer and the Salon du Glacier.
On the way to the Grand Foyer is a corridor and room (I believe, the Library, full of
paintings and models of various operas, ballets and performers. Here is one which I found irresistable:
Fanny Cerrito a ballerina from 1840.
The Grand Foyer is right out of Versailles. It is a combination of styles - Renaissance, Baroque and Classical blended into what one might call “le style Garnier”. It is 54 metres in length and 18 metres high. The width was determined by Garnier according to his estimates of the number of people potentially occupying the space in comfort. That calculation led to a width of 10 metres, but Garnier added three more for comfort. The predominant features are the paintings on the vaulted ceilings and sides, mainly by Paul Baudry, including Music, and Tragedy.
At one end is “Apollo receiving the Lyre” by Barrias.
But there are also large columns supporting elevated platforms on which rest multiple sculptures. There is so much more here than I can describe and not a square centimetre of space has been overlooked.
"Order is the pleasure of reason, but disorder is the delight of the imagination." Paul Cludel
We stumbled across The Salon du Glacier, by accident. It is an amazing contrast to the grand foyer, a cool, calm and restful area. It was a place for refreshments, fruit, coffee, tea, wine, ice creams and sorbet (hence the name), pastries, etc. The ceiling, painted in 1889, is covered by bacchanalian festivities painted by Georges Clairin. Bacchus is central with a crown of grape vines, satyrs, naked women, and the ever-present voyeuristic cherubs checking on who’s doing what to whom. The colours are vibrant, lively and full of gaiety.
Of particular interest are the Gobelin tapestries representing various refreshments. They were based on the drawings of Joseph Mazzarole and woven by different artists between 1873 and 1874.
One of the Gobelin tapestries showing :coffee"
Another tapestrie showing "Ice cream and sorbet.
The bust is of the dancer, Carlotta Grisi (I'm not 100% certain, though)
There’s quite a bit more in this small area but its time to move on to the main attraction: the ceiling of the auditorium.
The auditorium itself is a tribute to Garnier’s awareness of the effect surroundings had on people. The stimulus and impact of the sumptuous decorations and seating were designed to influence the spectator’s mind in a discreet way as a preparation for the music and visual spectacle to follow. It exhibits the same philosophy of design Garnier displayed in the Grand Escalier foyer.
A detail of the decration at the side of the auditorium going towards the stage.
The original ceiling, of which there is a painting in the Musée D’Orsay, was by Eugene Lenepveu, a friend of Garnier’s. It is called “The Triumph of Beauty, Charmed by Music, amidst the Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night” (What a mouthful!) However, the colours are muted (at Garnier’s request) and it lacks the pomp and circumstance of the rest of the amphitheatre. Compared to the paintings in the Rotunde du Glacier, or the Grand Foyer, it looks dull and uninteresting. However, it is still there but covered by the Chagall painting. The Chagall ceiling itself consists of 12 canvas panels, oil on canvas, and a central panel glued to polyester material, hoisted and assembled to make the final work. It is a massive 240 square metres (2440 square feet). The painting is a tribute to 14 composers: Modest Moussorgsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Pietor Ilych Tchaikovsky, Christoph Willibald Gluck, GiuseppeVerdi, Ludwig von Beethoven, Georges Bizet and Adolphe Adam.
The works illustrated are: Boris Goudonov, The Magic Flute, Tritan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, (the work by Rameau was not specified), Pellease and Melisande, Daphnis and Chloe, The Firebird, Swan Lake, Orpheus and Eurydice, La Traviata, Fidelio, Carmen and Giselle.
I don’t know why Chagall chose those specific composers, many of them Russian. It may have been their subject matter, predominantly love stories, that attracted Chagall’s interest.
The stage and a part of the ceiling showing "Giselle" and "Boris Gudinov"
Part of the ceiling and the crystal chandelier designed by Jules Corboz, consisting of 340 individual
lights and weighing over 7 tons.
There was considerable controversy over the choice of Chagall, a Russian Jew, although a naturalized French citizen, to paint the new ceiling and the French press was unremittingly nasty. But Andre Malraux, the Minister of Culture who commissioned the work, felt that Chagall was the only painter who could do it justice and supported him without hesitation. He was offered the commission after a production of Daphnis and Chloe for which he did the set designs. He later designed the sets for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Magic Flute as well as the two enormous tapestries adorning the entry to the opera house.
Chagall’s use of “uninhibited colours”, vibrant, shimmering and prismatic echoed Garnier’s own feelings on the use of colour. The style may have been 20th century with its fantastical, surreal representation, but the intent and the effect matched Garnier’s concept of total theatre. The ceiling, despite its non-Classical, non-Baroque style reflects Garnier’s grandiose concept of form and function for the auditorium and the entire opera house. Chagall had the same vision in this regard in which the setting, the audience and stage were one.
Part of Romeo and Juliet by Berlioz. (one can see the Arch de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde
to the left of the embracing lovers.
This part dedicates jean-Philippe Rameau, but the work is not identified.
Part of Pelias et Melisande by Debussy and Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel.
Giselle by Aldolphe Adam. Just to the left of the dancers is a bit of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.
Above two: Daphnis et Chloe and a bit of The Firebird by Stravinsky.
The Eiffel Tower is in the middle and the figure near the top and just to the right of it is a self-portrait of Chagall.
After one year’s work by the 77 year old artist, the ceiling was complete. It was inaugurated on September 23, 1964 at a gala with over 2100 invited guests. The Paris correspondent for the New York Times wrote:
"For once the best seats were in the uppermost circle. To begin with, the big crystal chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling was unlit... the entire corps de ballet came onto the stage, after which, in Chagall's honour, the opera's orchestra played the finale of the Mozart’s 40th symphony, “The Jupiter”, Chagall's favorite composer. During the last bars of the music, the chandelier lit up, bringing the artist's ceiling painting to life in all its glory, drawing rapturous applause from the audience”.
Chagall epitomized the essence of his chef d’oeuvre in his own words to the audience that evening:
“I have considered the Opera as a whole…The genius of Garnier’s architecture and Carpeaux’s sculpture made a profound impression on me. Up there, as in a mirror, I set out to reflect, as in a bouquet of dreams, the creations of the actors and musicians; to recall the movement of the colourfully attired audience below, and to honour the great opera and ballet composers…. To sing like a bird, without theories or method. I worked with all my heart and I want to offer this work as a gift out of gratitude to France and her Ecole de Paris, without which there would be neither colour nor freedom.”
Here below are some of the images, including close-ups of Chagall’s masterpiece.
Vacheron has been a patron of the arts for many years and a patron of the Paris National Opera since 2007. It is a fitting match given the company’s commitment to visual beauty in the design of their watches and clocks. They have promoted and nurtured the artists and designers of exceptional talent and creativity throughout the 20th century. Whether it was their alliance with Vergere-Freres, their use of alternative time display as with the Mercator Series or the Hommage aux Grands Explorateurs, both of which use decorated dials or their engraved skeletonized movements; their philosophy that watches should be more than just mere timekeepers, is displayed without reservation. And now they have reached a new level of achievement with the watches dedicated to the Chagall ceiling. The first watch of the entire ceiling was presented to honour the 30th anniversary of the Friends of the Paris Opera and was debuted at a gala in November 2010 at the Palais Garnier. The dial for this watch, and the 14 others to follow as tributes to the great composers depicted in the ceiling, used an old technique called “grand feu” miniature enamel painting. The enamelled dial passes through a least 20 firings as different colours are applied. The enamellers knowledge and experience is uppermost since the colour of enamel initially applied is not necessarily the same as that after the firing process. The enameller must be able to predict the results of the intense heating process, a very difficult, meticulous and time-consuming challenge. But it allows a subtlety of colour and gradation unobtainable by other techniques such as champlevé or cloisonné.
Vacheron was indeed wise and fortunate to choose this ceiling as a basis for its Metier d’Art collection. This grand work and its tributes to great composers are a fitting reflection of Vacheron’s own philosophy and its relationship with the arts. It salutes both the visual arts and the musical arts simultaneously. The wonderful execution of the dials is furthermore a great honour and tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
I felt like I was taking that tour with you, and to say the least it was the best of both worlds: information that is woven into an interesting narrative combined with visual pleasure. Thank you for sharing this with us.
And having seen one of the Chagall pieces in the flesh a couple of weeks ago I can't stop thinking about how mesmerising they truly are in the flesh. I cannot agree more with your thoughts on the collection!
I'm pleased you enjoyed it. Its a real introduction to that time period and the history of a remakable building. Its a great honour to France and the respect the country has for it is reflected by the enormous effort to restore it to its former glory.
All the best to everyone in sunny California!
The Magic Flute is one of my favourites too (along with IL Travatore). I saw the production with the Chagall sets many years ago at the Met and also the more recent one with the designs by Julie Taymore (The Lion King). Both excellent but day and night different.
That would be my choice for the watch too!
Country: United Kingdom
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Jul 27, 2009
Joseph, this must be your best investment todate. As a consequence I've travelled the Palais Garnier with you and Gale and enjoyed every second of it. Your written commentary, as we strolled through the museum, can only be described as exemplary. The camera also made a significant contribution capturing magnificent pieces that we can again share with our friends that have not enjoyed this wonderful experience.
I must again thank you, together with your masterful pen, for a most enjoyable report. I really do feel as though we made the journey together!
I was really looking forward to this, Joseph, and you did not disappoint.
When we were in Paris last summer, we stopped only outside the Palais Garnier, but did not go inside. We were focused on "underground Paris" on that trip, and Garnier intrigued me with the underground lake, but then I was told that we could not actually go underneath the opera house, which was a disappointment.
After reading this report, and now with a new appreciation of the MDA watches, I will make sure to include a visit during the next Paris trip.
You will be quite impressed by the visit.
I would definitly recommend Fontaine's 2 books on the Palais Garnier, one on the exterior and one on the interior. They are not really long and full of beautiful photos. The information contained within is quite revealing. I think it will enhance your visit too.
All the best,