Art

World’s largest painting, Dufy’s “Electricity Fairy”, gets a spruce up in Paris

Dufy's "Electricity Fairy" takes up an entire room at Paris's Museum of Modern Art
Dufy's "Electricity Fairy" takes up an entire room at Paris's Museum of Modern Art © Pierre Antoine
4 min

Raoul Dufy’s 600m2 masterpiece La Fée Eléctricité (The Electricity Fairy) has just been given a facelift. The colossal operation is carried out every 20 years or so, but the latest dust-down benefited from drone technology.

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Like Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, Raoul Dufy was commissioned to paint huge frescoes for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Electricité de France (EDF) tasked Dufy with “promoting the role of electricity in national life”.

What sounded like the driest of subjects lit up Dufy's imagination and resulted in his biggest and certainly one of his most remarkable works: The Electricity Fairy.

In 250 panels of explosive colour, Dufy blended both mythology and history to tell the story of light from classical times to the 1930s and the way it affected daily life, from fields to factories, theatres to popular balls.

The upper part of the painting shows a changing landscape featuring Dufy's favourite sailing boats and flocks of birds. The centre shows Olympian gods and the Ivry-sur-seine power station generators connected by Zeus’s thunderbolt.

The lower half is devoted to portraits of 110 scientists and inventors, from Aristotle to Edison, who helped in the development of electricity.

Visitors immerse themselves in Dufy's "The Electricity Fairy" at MAM
Visitors immerse themselves in Dufy's "The Electricity Fairy" at MAM © Pierre Antoine

A masterpiece

EDF donated the painting to Paris’s museum of modern art (MAM) in 1964 and it now takes up one entire room.

“It’s a masterpiece” said Fabrice Hergott, the museum’s director.

“Dufy has this very wide view, offering a complete panorama between technology on the one hand and natural elements on the other. The way he represented trees, the wind in the leaves, for example, is fabulous!”

Dufy’s work also reflected 20th century faith in progress and technology, with scientific rather than Catholic saints.

“He did research to be able to represent technologies very precisely,” Hergott explained, “both the thermal power station in Ivry and the TSF stations (precursor of the radio) along with objects which have now been forgotten.”

French painter Raoul Dufy works on a painting at the Jewish Memorial Hospital in Roxbury, Mass., on Nov. 21, 1950.
French painter Raoul Dufy works on a painting at the Jewish Memorial Hospital in Roxbury, Mass., on Nov. 21, 1950. © Associated Press

Drone and scaffolding

While cleaning such a mammoth work is done roughly every 20 years, this time it was a matter of urgency. Despite all the necessary precautions, recent work at the museum had left a thin film over the canvas, rendering the colours less vibrant.

Restorers began by photographing the painting from every angle in high definition, using a drone for the first time to get access to the heights of the 10 metre tall canvas.

They then had to check all 18,000 screws which hold together the 250 panels. Scaffolding was mounted and the experts were attached to life-lines like rock-climbers to inspect the screws. Half of them had to be replaced.

Return of the purple thunderbolt

Dufy painted his complex, gigantic fresco in under a year using the Maroger technique: paint mixed with oil and water to allow quick drying.

But it took the dozen or so restorers three months to complete their clean-up operation.

Sophie Krebs, MAM curator and supervisor of the operation, described the result as “wonderful”.

“The gaps between the 250 panels had blackened but cleaning has brought back the fluidity in the piece," she said.

“By removing a kind of grey film covering the painting we rediscovered an incredible vivacity in the colours. In the centre there's a panel in sky blue and white tones, with a purple thunderbolt above it. I had completely forgotten that the thunderbolt was that colour! So we can see colours that weren’t apparent before.”

The Electricity Fairy facelift cost 80,000 euros; the bill was picked up by the City of Paris.

The oeuvre will be open to the public once the MAM itself reopens, depending on how the Covid health crisis evolves.

In the meantime, you can behold Dufy’s fresco thanks to 360° photos taken during the “big clean up”.

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