Gold lacquered panels
for the First-Class smoking room on the liner the Normandie
Jean Dunand was commissioned to create gold lacquered panels for the First-Class smoking room on the liner the Normandie. He chose as his theme Games and Joys of Man. Fishing and Sports were installed to one side of the staircase leading to the grillroom and Conquest of the Horse and Grape Harvest on the other side. The fifth panel, Hunting, was placed on the two sliding doors opening onto the Main Saloon. On the reverse side was Dawn and the Winds based on a cartoon by Jean Dupas.
The 1,200 m² area of gold lacquer decorating the smoking room was much admired by the passengers.
Dunand, along with several other early 20th-century interior designers revived this technique which originated in China, using the resin of a tree found in Korea or Burma.
Since Dunand’s lacquered wood panels for the liner the Atlantique had been destroyed by fire several years earlier, he first created a fireproof base using a mixture of lacquer, plaster and plastic clay mass-coloured in a reddish-brown. The pliability of this base, which was left to harden in the open air, enabled him to create his bas-relief whose figures were created with a gouge and rasp as if working with wood, then carved in “relief en creux” in the Egyptian style. When it had been sanded and dried in a humid atmosphere, it was coated with about thirty layers of lacquer using a paintbrush. Gold leaf was then applied to the lacquer while it was still wet and the gold was burnished with powdered charcoal.
Drawing on the traditional repertoire of major public commissions of the era, Dunand chose a theme drawn from Greek or Egyptian classical antiquity, using very low relief to create a group of young men in Praxitelean poses training for the Olympic disciplines of discus, shot-put and javelin. However, Sports is the most modern theme in the group.
Dunand demonstrates a humanist attitude here characteristic of the mid-1930s: sport, the leisure culture and notions of healthy living were praised by modern man. The vitalist development of the body was a notion which evolved in the 1920s and 1930s, peaking with the aesthetic of totalitarian nations and their cult of the idealised body of the classical world.
There is no political message here, just a luxurious piece of ornamentation designed to create a warm ambiance in the smoking room. Everything is designed to please the eye: clean lines of composition appropriate to the large scale of the work, clear diagonal positioning of the figures, a variety of static and dynamic poses and alternating engine-turned and smooth surfaces in the background.
The metaphor of classical antiquity is superimposed onto the image of young people indulging in the pleasures of physical exercise and the scene has a sufficiently timeless air to prevent the nude bodies from causing offence to the First-Class passengers of the liner.
Sports is the only panel which has been preserved in its entirety and has even been enhanced on the door area by Dunand’s sons. The lower half of Fishing and The Conquest of the Horse were removed in 1949 when they were re-installed on the liner Ile-de-France. The upper panels of Grape Harvest were acquired by Oissel town council in Normandy. The lower parts of the other panels have been dispersed.