The Story Behind Chagall’s Stunning Ceiling at the Paris Opera

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The Story Behind Chagall’s Stunning Ceiling at the Paris Opera
It’s beneficial to have friends in high places. Two such friends who found themselves in rarified air were the Russian expat artist Marc Chagall and André Malraux, award-winning novelist, theorist and statesman. Close friends since 1924, Malraux was a 20-something surrealist poet when he met Chagall at his first exhibition of paintings. Fast forward to 1962 and Malraux as the minister of cultural affairs under de Gaulle, commissioned his friend Chagall to create a new ceiling for the Paris Opera. Marc Chagall, around 1920, photographed by Pierre Choumoff. Public domain Designed by Charles Garnier, the Palais Garnier opened in 1875. Like a gigantic treasure chest, the imposing Paris Opera was one of the major edifices that anchored the renovated streets of Paris. Attending the Palais Garnier in the early 1960s, André Malraux was disappointed with the opera house’s ceiling. The floating cherubs in Jules-Eugène Lenepveu’s original trompe l’oeil were fantastic and in keeping with the other gilded semi-nudes festooning the interior. However, Malraux thought these putti in their pastel heaven represented a bourgeois taste no longer relevant to Paris of the 1960s. Wearing his “art theorist hat,” Malraux once argued that art transcended time, but he also believed that when a work had fallen into obscurity a process metamorphosis was needed. Malraux wanted the ceiling repainted. Behind closed doors, Malraux gave the commission to repaint the ceiling of the Paris Opera to his friend Marc Chagall. No other tenders were entertained. The press and critics balked: the diamond in the crown of Paris’s arts and culture had been given to Chagall, a foreign-born, Jewish, avant-garde artist. Nevertheless, Malraux countered his naysayers, shrugging in his ever-so French way that, “the ceiling will be repainted by Chagall or we shall close down the Opera.” At first Chagall was reticent. He was 77 and plagued by a bad back. The dissension from his critics pierced him, adding to the anti-Semitic barbs that Chagall had endured his whole life. However, his wife Vava, in accord with Malraux’s wife, urged him to go ahead. André Malraux, Prix Goncourt. Photo credit: Agence de presse Meurisse/ BNF Gallica
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Lead photo credit : Chagall's ceiling at the Paris Opera. Photo: Hazel Smith

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.