Restoration of a panorama du commerce
<a class="switch">Interview of <br><b>Alix Laveau</b><br>by <br><b>Guillaume Picon</b></a><br> <span style="display: none;"><br> <b>Alix Laveau</b> :<br> restorer of the<br> Direction des Musées de France<br> <b>Guillaume Picon</b> :<br> historian </span>
 
Stepping inside the Bourse du Commerce, visitors immediately look up to the dome, towering forty meters above their heads. There, they discover the immense painting created in 1889, spanning a full 360 degrees. This, it reminds you, is a Bourse de Commerce: this panorama depicts trade across the continents. Its restoration took place from January to July 2018 under the supervision of Alix Laveau. The process disclosed some secrets behind the technique of marouflage and revealed the personality of each of the five artists commissioned to create this impressive panorama. Alix Laveau describes her experience working on this exceptional project.


Restoration of a panorama du commerce

<br><u>Guillaume Picon</u> — How did you feel the first time you saw the décor lining the top of the Bourse de Commerce? <br> <br><u>Alix Laveau</u> — I discovered the Bourse de Commerce before renovations began. I was impressed by the scale of the décor: 140 meters long by 10 meters high, or 1,400 square meters of canvas. It seemed endless! The start of the construction work didn’t lessen that emotional reaction. A scaffolding was built that allowed me to climb twenty meters high, so that I was only a few inches away from the paintings. It was overwhelming, intoxicating. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — What do the paintings depict? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — They deal with the progression of modernity in France through commerce with countries throughout the world. In an article about the inauguration of the Bourse de Commerce, the newspaper <i>Le Temps</i>, in its issue dated November 21, 1889, calls this décor a “panorama of commerce.” 1889 was also the year of the Exposition Universelle, during which the two monuments presented by France were the Eiffel Tower and the Bourse de Commerce. France wanted to present itself in “its finest attire,” and this décor is one of its best! <br> <br><u>GP</u> — How was this panorama perceived at the time? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — Public opinion, as recorded in the press, seemed rather divided. A few critics had reservations, others were full of praise. For instance, historian Charles Bivort, in a work devoted to the building’s history published in 1889, wrote that, “All these paintings, connected by a blue expanse of sky, are in perfect harmony and produce a stunning effect. The elevation of the cupola is such that the people depicted had to be rendered at a huge size in order to be visible: their heads, in the foreground, are more than half a meter wide.”<sup>1</sup> Nonetheless, recurrent critique had to do with the lack of coherence in the overall composition. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — Who painted this “panorama of commerce”? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — The panorama is the work of not one, but five artists—which explains the lack of coherence mentioned in some newspaper articles. Four of them deal with commerce in a given part of the world: Évariste-Vital Luminais was assigned America; Désiré-François Laugée, Russia and the North; Georges-Victor Clairin, Asia and Africa; and finally Hippolyte Lucas, Europe. In between those scenes, Alexis Mazerolle, who supervised the project, added allegories of the continents and regions depicted by the individual artists, in each of the four cardinal directions: Europe is represented by the arts and architecture; Africa by a lion and the hunt; Asia and the Orient by a hookah and elephants; and the North by a polar bear. This large, detailed composition invites viewers to travel across the world. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — Today those painters are little known, or not at all. How were they considered by the art world toward the end of the nineteenth century? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — Paris became a modern city under Napoleon III. New infrastructure and monuments were built, many of which were decorated. Artistic production soared. Twentieth-century critics have generally been scornful of the decorative paintings created during the nineteenth century, even when those are of a high caliber. And yet, visitors today are amazed when they discover the décor painted by Isidore Pils for the monumental staircase of the Opéra Garnier—clearly this type of painting is still awe-inspiring! <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>The artists who worked on the dome of the Bourse de Commerce were known at the time, even renowned. Georges Clairin trained at the atelier of François Édouard Picot. He was part of the “Orientalist” painters and was chosen to participate in the decoration of several public monuments, such as the staircase and foyer of the Opéra Garnier, the ceilings of the Hôtel de Ville and the Sorbonne. After Mazerolle passed away in May 1889, Clairin supervised the completion of the work on the Bourse de Commerce. <br> <br>Alexis Joseph Mazerolle, the backbone of the team, was also the most academic painter among them. He created decors for many important theaters, including the Opéra in Paris. He had an international clientele, which took him to Naples and New York. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Like Clairin, Désiré Laugée studied under François Édouard Picot; he was also a poet, and counted Victor Hugo among his friends. He was interested in depicting the countryside, which aligned him with naturalism. Laugée created some important décors: at the Palais du Luxembourg, the Église Saint-Clotilde, and the Hôtel Continental—which was built by Henri Blondel, the architect of the Bourse de Commerce! <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Évariste-Vital Luminais is considered a history painter, and as such, an academic artist. His depictions of the Gauls and of the medieval ages are part of a new iconography of the country’s history, disseminated in the textbooks of the Third Republic. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Finally, Hyppolite Lucas, a student of Luminais, was the youngest member of the group. He painted large decors for the Casino of Monte Carlo, the convention center and oceanographic museum of Monaco, and the ceilings of the Préfecture du Rhône. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — How did they proceed with the work? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — Archival material pertaining to the organization of the work site and the relationships among the artists is limited. Some sketches by Lucas and Luminais are preserved in the collections of the Petit Palais and the Musée d’Orsay. The artists created their paintings on several lengths of linen or hemp canvas in their ateliers. These were then recut, pasted together, and incised when they were affixed to the walls. The canvases were joined together on site by their creators, each following their individual inclinations. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — Has the panorama been restored before now? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — A first time in 1995, and a second time, from 2010 to 2013, but only in certain areas, following a fire. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — What conditions were the canvases in before you intervened? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — They had gotten dirty over time, developing a dull, off-white film layer that altered the colors of the décor and affected the relationships between the shaded areas and those in the light. The entirety of the canvas had become very fragile; the binder in the paint had lost its adhering power. Unfortunately, this deterioration had led to very visible losses of paint. Previous touch-ups and more large-scale restorations had been transformed by the intense ultraviolet lighting and the temperatures of the air-conditioned Bourse over the past twenty years. On the other hand, places in which the canvas had become unglued were rare. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>Finally, an important anomaly is still very difficult to correct. It consists of the “ghosts” of the metal frame of the cupola. These stains are produced by dust, attracted by the magnetic pull of the metal structure. Once you climb up the scaffolding and are looking at the paintings up close, these ghosts become almost invisible. One of the more challenging tasks we undertook was to create a map of these ghosts, through photographs, so that we would be able to locate and tackle them. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — What constraints did you have to keep in mind? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — There were two important considerations: the allocated budget, and the time-frame within which to complete the work. It was a considerable challenge: given the information we had at hand, and the exceptional scale of the panorama, we typically would have needed more time and more considerable resources. Plus, there was the additional problem of lead pollution from the paint used in the late nineteenth century; and because the scaffolding was very narrow, it was impossible to take a step back and have a more global view of the composition. The restoration of the panorama was just one aspect of the larger transformation of the entire building. The noise of the machines, the dust of the construction work, the cold, the heat, etc.—all these factors made our work more difficult. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — What organizational system did you set in place? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — We divided the work into three phases: a cleaning, followed by an esthetic intervention, then a final harmonization of the whole. I recruited a team of twenty-four restorers, divided into six work groups. The entire team consisted of people with whom I’d worked before. We share the same philosophy of restoration and follow the same code of ethics. It was important for me to keep in mind the big picture, so that I wouldn’t get lost in the details of the décor but make sure our work, and the final result, was consistent. Details pertaining to the “ideal” condition of the panorama, to the previous restoration, and to this current one, were meticulously recorded in a technical document that allowed us to proceed quickly and effectively. <br> <br><u>GP</u> — Three months after completion of the restoration, how do you feel about the Panorama du Commerce? <br> <br><u>AL</u> — This restoration, a crucial component of Tadao Ando’s project for the Pinault Collection, makes it possible to see these paintings as they have never been possible before. From the walkway created at the top of Ando’s central cylinder, visitors will be closer to the Panorama than their nineteenth-century forerunners had been. Our goal for this restoration was exactly that. <br><br> <span class="alinea"></span>To close, an amusing movie reference: in Marco Ferreri’s <i>Don’t Touch the White Woman!</i> (1974), the character played by Philippe Noiret looks up at the dome of the Bourse de Commerce and says: “Beautiful fresco, isn’t it? It’s our Sistine Chapel!” I couldn’t think of a better compliment. <br> <br> <div class="notes"> 1 — Charles Bivort, <i>Cent ans, la Halle aux Blés en 1789, la Bourse de Commerce en 1889</i> (<i>One Hundred Years: the Halle aux Blés in 1789, the Bourse de Commerce in 1889</i>) (Paris: Imprimerie des Halles, 1889). </div>
 

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