Text by Deanna MacDonald
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This masterpiece by Dufy usually elicits a standard response: ‘wow’. The immense painting (10m x 60m – of which we can only illustrate a section), curved like a softly formed V, envelops the viewer in a sea of colour and narrative that literally makes jaws drop. Painted in a remarkable 10 months, it was a commission by the Paris Electric Company for their Pavilion of Light and Electricity at the 1937 Paris International Exposition and since 1964 has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris.
The entire mural is in Dufy’s characteristic style: rapid calligraphic drawing on a background of bright thinly washed colour, which gives a sense of vibrant life and pleasure. Dufy was given carte blanche (his only limits were the shape and size of the Pavilion) to design a celebration of the history of electricity. He took his inspiration from Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the nature of things), which expounds the Epicurean view of the natural origins of the universe. Taking a similar view of natural history as a progression, Dufy in a way sought to complete Lucretius’ poem by bringing it up to the present world, creating a temple of Electricity, the goddess of modern times.
The temple Dufy builds is a huge power station which he places at the centre point of the mural, in the apse-like midpoint of the V. Above it flashes bolts of crackling electricity, which recall the lighting bolts of Zeus, who sits with a pantheon of Olympian gods above it. This is the heart of the work and Dufy draws it with only white and black line on a background of all blue, which he considered the most potent colour (‘blue is the only colour which, whatever the circumstances, retains its individuality’ he said).
The gods preside over the story that unfolds to either side. The narrative is designed to be read from right to left and has two levels. The lower level features 110 portraits of the philosophers, scholars and engineers from antiquity to the present and the upper register presents images of their discoveries – from mathematics to the light bulb - and its uses. Each personage, whose name is written next to them in Dufy’s cursive script, appears in period costume: from Archimedes in a toga to Benjamin Franklin in a plain 18th century American suit to Marie Curie (the only woman) in her characteristic beige, high-collared dress.
Each age is denoted by swathes of changing colour: Antiquity is a lush bucolic world of warm yellows and greens and as time progresses towards modernity, colours become cooler. The first factory appears in a flash of red and the modern world of industry turns to steely blues and mauves. Soon colours and events come more rapidly and begin to overlap with the frenzied rhythm of modern times.
The final scene is a riot of blazing, iridescent colour, a culmination that features the electricity-driven marvels of 1937: cinema, radio, airports. We see an orchestra play and be heard by millions, neon lights glow and planes fly, all with a sense of wonder. Over it all floats a huge Iris, messenger of the gods, who appears in a euphoric spotlight of energy and colour: the climax of a colossal visual celebration of electricity and modernity.
To modern eyes, Dufy’s joyful take on technological progress can seem naïve; however it accurately reflects the zeitgeist of the 1930s and captures the ‘Brave New World’-like optimism, a time before A-bombs and climate change.
The most persistent criticism of Dufy – mostly from those who believed true art must somehow be difficult – was that his work was frivolous and hedonistic. But Dufy’s genius was to combine masterful colour, a lightness of touch and a pure joy of painting, and as Gertrude Stein once admiringly said: ‘Raoul Dufy is pleasure itself’.
1937 Henri Matisse: Woman in Blue, Philadelphia, Museum of Art
1937 Pablo Picasso: Weeping Woman, London, Tate
1938 Marc Chagall: White Crucifixion, Chicago, Art Institute