Marc Chagall's Ceiling for the Paris Opéra

The ceiling of the Opéra Garnier was completely renovated and re-imagined in 1964 at the urging of Minister of Culture André Malraux. The talented Marc Chagall was entrusted with painting 2,400 square feet of frescoes.

By Balthazar Malevolent

Marc Chagall's Ceiling for the Paris Opéra

On 23 September 1964, more than two thousand guests came to the Paris Opéra for the unveiling of the plafond painted by Marc Chagall. The chandelier under the ceiling was doused, the entire corps de ballet came on stage and the 'Jupiter' by Mozart, Chagall's favourite composer, was performed. The chandelier was then switched on and everyone in the audience could see the Opéra's new plafond.

Inviting Marc Chagall to do such a work was a rather brave decision that provoked much controversy. A Jew from Soviet Belorussia, an emigrant and a very old man - Chagall was 77 at the time - an artist with a very unclassical style of painting: all this led to various malicious gossips. Criticism, however, subsided after the opening. The Grand Opéra, covered in gold and paintings from past centuries, almost a museum piece, suddenly found a new history.

The Minister of Culture, André Malraux, was in no doubt about his choice; he had seen Chagall's set for Daphnis et Chloé and realised that Chagall was the only artist who could manage to renovate the plafond.

The 220 square metre plafond consists of polyester panels which were then fixed at a height of 21 metres.

Chagall conventionally divided the plafond into five segments. Each segment is dedicated to a certain opera and ballet composer, featuring Chagall's favourite motifs of lovers, animals, musicians, and angels.

The white segment is dedicated to Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande opera and shows the Opéra building itself.

The red segment is Stravinsky's The Firebird and Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé ballets featuring the Eiffel Tower.

The blue segment is Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Against the yellow background, we see Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Adolphe Adan's Giselle.

In green: the love stories: Hector Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde with the Arc de Triomphe and Concord Square in the background.

At the central circle of the dome, around the chandelier, we find Bizet's Carmen as well as works by Beethoven, Verdi, and Gluck.

Marc Chagall titled his work "a coloured mirror of silks and glittering jewels". The fantastic décor of the plafond intricately combined with the mystical inner world of the artist.

Chagall's Frescoes on the Ceiling of the Opéra Garnier.
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