We met with Sophie Krebs, curator of the Paris Modern Art Museum (MAM) for an exclusive backstage visit of the museum and to speak about her work and Dufy’s incredible 600 square feet incredible painting: The Electricity Fairy. A colourful marvel Ariodante has chosen for one of its Heritage Experiences.
When looking for the first time at the intricate, complex and magnificent gigantic fresco Raoul Dufy painted in less than a year, there is an overwhelming feeling of marvel. The painting reads like a poem, blooming from the centre with the gods of Olympus and spreading outward, intertwining mythology and history. Cool currents intersect warm waves, landscapes shift and slant, the entire canvas in motion as it shuffles through a hundred and ten individuals, from Aristotle to Edison, who aided in the development of electricity. Dufy’s style is whimsical yet evocative, carrying the imagination of infancy into the scientific world, a reminder of science’s dependency on dreamers.
The incredible energy Dufy put into his painting is incredible and still radiates today, filling an entire room in the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris (Modern Art Museum - MAM) where the painting is now on display since 1964.
Sophie, could you tell us a bit more about yourself and mostly about your passion for arts and how you became a curator?
Sophie Krebs: I have always been attracted by visual arts, from all kinds. Artists deliver a visual message; that can appear as mysterious. That’s why I always wanted to learn more about it.
Since I was a teenager, I have always wanted to be a curator and nobody at home knew about this profession. To become a curator I had to focus on different universes such as literary and history.
The Paris Modern Art Museum (MAM) has some impressive art collections. Could you tell us a bit about those collections and about your recent acquisitions?
SK: After almost 2 years of works, the MAM has reopened in October 2019. The project involved the renovation of the lobby, ready access for all and restoration of the forecourt. On average, the museum welcomes more than 650 000 visitors each year.
Also, the collection hung has been completely rethought. With more than 15, 000 works, the art collections present the major artistic movements from the twentieth century to the present, illustrated by leading artists who have been consecrated by art history: Picasso, Derain, Boltanski, …
About acquisitions, the Society of Friends of the MAM strongly contributes to expanding our art collection. Since 2007, over 2 900 works have been added to the museum collection. As an example, an artwork of Loris Greaud has recently been donated to the museum in 2019.
What does it mean for you to be one of the MAM curator and what does "being a curator today" means to you?
SK: Being a curator today does not exactly consist of the same missions as it did in 1989 (when I began to work here). Back then we were a large team who worked together and artists were considered as the main guides.
Nowadays - even if the curator is still the privileged interlocutor and vector for artists - the economic issues and new interlocutors have conveyed a new position for curators, that consists in an increase of our missions. The curator has to be more polyvalent. The job can also include public relations, fundraising and educational programs.
One of the museum’s key masterpiece is Dufy’s impressive fresco: The Electricity Fairy (La Fée Électricité), a gigantic 600 square feet masterpiece painted for the 1937 exhibition in Paris. What makes this fresco so unique in an artistic point of view and how did it influence other artists?
SK: First of all it’s a technical challenge: Dufy, who used to work as artistic director for the textile industry, had to imagine each step of the production: he proceeded alone, without any assistant, for the realisation of La Fée Electricité.
Also, he experimented several techniques such as wood panel instead of canvas, or Maroger process (in order to fasten the drying process and therefore fasten the painting). Thanks to those technics he realised this piece in less than a year!
It is also an exceptional work thanks to its blend of modernity and traditional subjects. Dufy emphasises several classical themes and uses colours in a brand new way.
After the war, the next generation of artists – except Chagall with the Paris Opera House’s famous ceiling – were not highlighting mural paintings technics.
What are the key elements of Dufy’s artistic language in this fresco?
SK: The way he used colour is the main point: it’s arbitrary, zonal, monochrome. Thanks to contrasting colours, Dufy can easily change from one theme to another. In this fresco, colour is independent of drawing and brings light.
The drawing is also very important thanks to its precision and details. The fluffy touch brings a feeling of fluidity to the painting.
Finally, the complex and flowing composition copies cinematographic processes and allows the public to go back in time easily. For transition and to avoid gaps, Dufy used clouds, smocks, and vegetation.
How do we see Dufy’s work evolving from the preparatory sketches to the final artwork?
SK: The MAM only has a part of Dufy’s sketches, including note takings on books, to tracing papers. Before the final artwork, we have access to a lot of inks or watercolour drawings that demonstrate the artist attention to detail.
It would appear that he painted from a series of drawings but we only have a partial view of La Fée Éléctricité.
How is the Paris Modern Art Museum (MAM) different from the other modern art institutions in the city such as the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Palais de Tokyo and now the Louis Vuitton Foundation?
SK: All art institutions have their own specificities.
Located between the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower, the MAM, an exceptional structure built for the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in 1937, is emblematic of architecture in the thirties.
With its remarkable in situ creations – La Fée Electricité and the two earliest versions of Matisse’s The Dance – the museum is indisputably one of France’s great museums. Since 2001 free admission to the permanent collection has made MAM the only place in Paris where everyone can enjoy Dufy, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani.
The museum programs exhibitions dedicated to emblematic artists of the twentieth century as well: Basquiat, Warhol, Albert Marquet, Bernard Buffet, Jean Fautrier, Zao Wou-Ki.
The MAM’s identity is characterised by its fantastic modern art collection, but also by an outstanding physical experience due to its typical architecture of the 1930s. It offers a unique experience of art.
Note that the museum is currently closed due to the Covid-19 measures imposed by the French Government. The Museum should reopen on 7 July and exhibitions will resume mid-September 2020.
Copyright: « Raoul Dufy, détail Fée Électricité © Guglielmo » and « Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris, Salles 1 et 2 © Louise Allavoine »