Oil on plywood, 250 panels
Like Léger, Delaunay and many other artists, Dufy received commissions for monumental murals for the International Exhibition in 1937, notably for the concave wall of the Palais de la Lumière et de l’Electricité, built by Mallet Stevens on the Champs-de-Mars. In accordance with the brief from his sponsors, the Compagnie parisienne de Distribution d’Electricité, he told the story of The Electricity Fairy based on De Rerum natura by Lucretius. In this composition measuring 10m x 60m, he works from right to left on two main themes, the history and applications of electricity, from the earliest observations right up to the most modern technical achievements. The upper part shows a changing landscape across which are dotted some of the painter’s favourite themes: yachts, flocks of birds, a threshing machine and a Bastille Day ball. Portraits of 110 great scientists and inventors who have contributed to the development of electricity are arranged across the lower half.
Blending mythology and allegory with historical fact and technological description, Dufy plays on the contrast between opposites - the gods of Olympus in the centre of the work and the power plant generators linked by Zeus’s thunderbolts; primordial nature and architecture; works, days and modern machines. In formal terms also, hot colours contrast with cold, with the dominant colours being clearly differentiated by zone. This dual narrative thread is resolved in an apotheosis as Iris, the messenger of the gods and daughter of Electra flies through the light above an orchestra and the capital cities of the world disseminating all the colours of the spectrum.
The method employed by Dufy meant that the work could be created very quickly (10 months from design to completion) thanks to a medium developed by the chemist Jacques Maroger which removed the opacity from pigments and rediscovered “the lost secrets of oil paint of the ancients, their brilliant colours which are flexible and transparent”. In actual fact, this speedy application of paint directly to the ground hides a great deal of preparation in the form of studies on models painted nude and then in costume, of drawings traced out to establish the position of groups and then projected life-size onto the panels using a magic lantern.
Donated by Electricité de France, this huge mural was installed in the museum in 1964.