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The Chagall ceiling of the Palais Garnier, Paris

Round painting by Marc Chagall on the ceiling of the Paris Opera with a chandelier hanging from the centre

The Palais Garnier opera house in Paris has an interior that is a golden riot of overwhelming Baroque and Neo-classical opulence. It seems that every conceivable space is occupied by lavishly-detailed and gilded decorative accents, grand sweeps of marble or by seething masses of fleshy cherubs flying around in painted skies above. The whole interior from the 1860s and ‘70s appears to be unified by those outrageously over-the-top elements.

But not quite! There is one major element of the interior decoration that is utterly different. It can be seen directly above the seven-tonne bronze chandelier in the vast theatre auditorium.

A radically different artwork on the ceiling

In a feat of cultural controversy and daring, the incomparable and brilliantly original “magical surrealist” artist, Marc Chagall, was commissioned by the French government to create a vast painting of 240 square metres (2,400 square feet) to replace the original Baroque-style circular panels. This was in the early 1960s, when writhing scenes of contorted humanity and assorted chubby chaps were considered – at least by some people – to be so tediously tired and academic. “Out with the old, bring on the modern magic!” insisted some. “Artistic sacrilege!” cried others.

While Chagall’s painting style was (and still remains) so astonishingly distinctive and instantly recognizable, in this massive creation he nevertheless paid homage to the giants of the operatic arts.

When Chagall’s work was installed and revealed in February 1964, the world could see (as can you in the accompanying picture) that the smaller central panel referenced four great composers and their operatic works: Bizet and Carmen (red); Verdi and La Traviata (yellow); Beethoven and Fidelio (green); and Gluck and Orpheus and Eurydice (blue).

The larger circular panel featured a further ten composers and their works, including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (yellow) and Stravinsky’s Firebird (blue). And all completed by Chagall at the grand age of 77 and with no creative fees being sought by the artist.

By the way, Chagall’s work is actually suspended from the ceiling on a lightweight frame. He didn’t destroy the original 1871 painting behind it by Jules Lenepveu, The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night.

On a tour of the Palais Garnier, you can recline in a theatre seat, cast your gaze upwards and be enthralled by the wondrous painting above you.

What you won’t see is a secret message left by Chagall for his son. A painting of a tiny baby so small it can’t be seen by the human eye but was discovered decades after the painting was completed by super cameras created by Google and used by their arts and culture team (read more about it here).

Approached from the long and beautiful Avenue de l’Opéra, the Palais Garnier is located in the Place de l’Opera in the 9th arrondisement.

Read more about the Palais Garnier, like a miniature Versailles palace…

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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