The monumental décor of the ceiling of the Paris Opera, painted on a surface of 220 m2, was commissioned from Marc Chagall in 1963 by André Malraux, minister of cultural affairs at the time and a friend of the artist: “What other living artist could have painted the ceiling of the Paris opera like Chagall did? He is one of the greatest colourists of our times […] a great many of his canvases and the ceiling of the Opera form an illustrious image, which is a significant part of the most beautiful poetry of our times”.
Despite some vigorous criticism of the painter, accused of breaking the unity of the Second Empire building and hiding the original work, Chagall, then aged 77, accepted the challenge and worked for almost a year. Like a palette of monumental colours, the decor pays tribute to fourteen musicians and their works.
In partnership with the Opera de Paris, the Lab from the Google Cultural Institute in Paris scanned a very high definition of the Marc Chagall’s painting of the ceiling in 1964. Five people relieved each other during several nights for this scan appearing to be a real technical challenge. This latter is used as a model for a graphic and music composition, realised by the Lab’s and Philharmonie de Paris’ teams and allowing to navigate in the different sections of Chagall’s work. Music extracts chosen by Mikhaïl Rudy, Music Director of the exhibition, fit with the composers, operas and ballets brought up by the painter.
In the 1960s, Marc Chagall devoted himself to the realization of large-scale decorative and architectural projects. Several public commissions allowed him to explore a new monumentality and to develop his painting in large spaces.
Performance venues, theatre and opera auditoriums, concert halls, as well as religious buildings benefitted from his talent through the conception of their decorative scheme.
In 1964, the meeting of Rudolph Bing, director of the Metropolitan Opera, Günther Rennert, stage director, and Chagall, was at the origin of the project for the new adaptation of The Magic Flute, an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in New York. Depicting a nature that is as luscious as it is threatening, inhabited by fantastical hybrid animals, Chagall conceived thirteen twenty-metre high backdrops, twenty-six pieces of scenery and over one hundred and twenty costumes.
From the 1950s, Marc Chagall gave new resonance to his art through an explosion of all kinds of techniques and materials that was as vital as it was jubilatory. Seeking new means of expression, which would fulfil a need for dialogue with the material, he turned to sculpture and ceramics.
Penetrating, lifting, intervening directly with the earth and the stone, he himself became the producer of sounds, giving rise to both full and hollow objects whose forms resounded like clinks, echoes or silence. This polyphonic dialogue was prolonged in paper and fabric collage, as well as the contemporary oil-on-canvas works in which sand was mixed into the preparation by the artist in order to obtain a granular, raspy and rugged texture.
Marc Chagall was entrusted by the Paris Opera with the creation of the scenery and costumes for the new version, which would open at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1958, choreographed by Serge Lifar, before it was reprised by George Skibine in Paris the following year
Working in parallel with the preparatory gouaches dedicated to the series of lithographs commissioned by Tériade on the same theme, the artist filled his scenery and costume models with the brilliant luminosity and deep blue of the sea which he experienced in Greece (1952 and 1954).
Marc Chagall arrived in New York in 1941, fleeing occupied France and the nazi threat. A period of exile and intense creation thus began, punctuated by fundamental scenic experiences.
The Firebird, a ballet in four tableaus with a scenario by Michel Fokine and music by Igor Stravinsky, was presented for the first time by the Ballets Russes in 1910. A new version was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1945. While Chagall invoked its Russian romanticism, he proposed a looser interpretation of the Slavic theme: he developed a powerful poetic repertoire inspired by the popular art of New Mexico (the kachinas). Four backdrops were created, one for the first act, The Enchanted Forest, which draws on a cosmogonic and magical nature.
A ballet in four tableaus created by Léonide Massine and Marc Chagall, Aleko is inspired by a poem by Pushkin, The Gypsies, and sets as music an orchestrated version of the op. 50 Trio “In Memory of a great artist” by Tchaïkovsky. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York, Marc Chagall created the costumes and scenery in 1942 in Mexico, where the first performance was held. A romantic vision of Bohemian life, the work tells the unhappy love story of the aristocrat Aleko and the gypsy Zemphira, exacerbated by their exile and their itinerant lifestyle. The dramatic intensity of the narrative is magnified by the backdrops created by the artist, himself exiled in the United States.
Marc Chagall, Design for a backdrop for Aleko: Aleko and Zemphira in the moonlight (Scene I)
Gouache, wash and pencil on paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
© Adagp, Paris 2015 − CHAGALL ®
The Moscow State Jewish Theatre (or GOSET) was opened in 1919 under the direction of Alexeï Granovsky who asked Marc Chagall to conceive a universal artistic scheme to decorate the walls of the theatre. A true reflection of Yiddish culture and language, this ensemble brought together the worlds of popular theatre, music, rhythm and colour. The stage curtain and the painting on the ceiling no longer exist, leaving only seven panels, composing the “Chagall’s Box”.