Raoul Dufy’s “La Fée électricité” in the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris.
Raoul Dufy’s “La Fée électricité” in the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. Wikimedia / Guillaume Baviere

A marvellous fairy named Electricity

Created by French artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) for the Electricity Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, the monumental mural “La Fée électricité” is a celebration of technological progress.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

The term “propaganda art” usually conjures up images of gaudy, flat depictions of heroes and heroines of labour from the former communist countries. Peasant women, tradespeople, factory workers – everyone is brimming with joy and enthusiasm in these paintings, no matter how arduous, boring or dirty their work may be. Beyond such clichés, however, art with a distinct bias can also be found in free societies. Except that in those milieus it tends to come under the heading of advertising artwork and commission painting, and is executed with a bit more subtlety. A prime example of this is the monumental wall painting “La Fée électricité”. On commission from Paris’s electricity companies, French artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) designed and executed the painting for the Electricity Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair.
The 1937 Paris World’s Fair; view towards the Eiffel Tower. On the left in the picture is the German Pavilion and opposite that the Soviet Pavilion.
The 1937 Paris World’s Fair; view towards the Eiffel Tower. On the left in the picture is the German Pavilion and opposite that the Soviet Pavilion. Ville de Paris / BHdV
This Pavilion, like the entire World’s Fair, was intended to celebrate technological progress. The electricity companies opted for a style of architecture that was refreshingly avant-garde for the time. Especially compared with the grandiose, overblown pavilions of Germany and the Soviet Union which dominated the Champ de Mars in Paris, Robert Mallet-Stevens’s sleek, austere design was one of the truly progressive concepts. He also made use of superlatives: the tower was surmounted by the beacon of the Ouessant lighthouse, which was then brand-new and the brightest beacon in the world. The flashing arc that sprayed sparks over the Esplanade added to the dazzling visual spectacle. The message conveyed by this feast of light was unequivocal: this is the future, and it requires electricity.
Electricity Pavilion with the beacon of the Ouessant lighthouse.
Electricity Pavilion with the beacon of the Ouessant lighthouse. OpenEdition Journals

From silk foulard to monumental painting

To paint this message, Dufy had around 600 square metres of interior wall space at his disposal. He had a mere 10 months to complete the formidable task. His assignment was to unfurl, for the gaze of World’s Fair visitors, the history of electricity from the beginnings of natural science in antiquity. That meant depicting all the preliminary stages, the small steps and the big inventions that culminated in an electrified present.
Raoul Dufy ca. 1920.
Raoul Dufy ca. 1920. Bibliothèque nationale de France
It was no coincidence that Dufy was chosen. He had initially established a reputation as an artist of the Fauvist school, along with painters such as Henri Matisse, and also gained a lot of experience with commissioned works. He had spent many years designing silk foulards for a company in Lyon, and his attractive, playful and decorative style had no inhibitions about contact with the advertising aesthetic of the day. In addition to the Electricity Pavilion, he also painted a bar in the theatre of the neighbouring Palais Chaillot.
“The Allies 1914-1915” by Raoul Dufy, printed silk scarf.
“The Allies 1914-1915” by Raoul Dufy, printed silk scarf. Bibliothèque Forney
Admittedly, the painting for the Electricity Pavilion was of a different calibre. The key to Dufy’s success lay in his systematic approach and comprehensive documentation. For the compositional elements, in addition to Lucretius’ De rerum natura, he consulted experts in the history of technology, read biographies of relevant inventors and quickly gained an overview of the history of electricity. For the scenes from the world of work depicted in the painting, he based his designs on photographs of workers taken by photographer François Kollar on his travels around France. Dufy visited power stations and factories. He also enlisted Jacques Maroger, chemicals analyst and the then-director of the Louvre’s conservation laboratory, to develop special wall paints that were luminous and enabled him to rough out the design in a fluid, flowing manner. Finally, he made numerous sketches which he projected on to the surface he was painting, made up of 250 wooden panels of identical size. This made it easier to carry out the work quickly with assistants.
Raoul Dufy and photographer Thérèse Bonney at work on the fresco “La Fée Electricité”, 1937.
Raoul Dufy and photographer Thérèse Bonney at work on the fresco “La Fée Electricité”, 1937. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris

A naive history of the energised world

After the World’s Fair ended, Dufy’s work – the somewhat ludicrous title “La fée électricité” was invented by someone else – spent several decades in storage. It wasn’t until 1964 that it was handed over to the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, based in the Palais de Tokyo – also inaugurated in 1937 – where it is now one of the Museum’s star attractions. As viewers enter the cathedral-like space, they are overwhelmed by the blaze of colour in a panoramic expanse embellished with a detailed visual narrative that has gained in freshness and luminosity since its restoration in 2021. The casual artistic skill with which Dufy has rendered his truly daunting subject matter makes the work both engaging and accessible. One quite remarkable feature is Dufy’s ingenious disjunction of figures and broad colour zones which characterise the overall impression of the work. Dufy doesn’t wander off into fussy didactics either, although he does incorporate the names of almost all his heroes of electricity. In any case, his panorama is of only limited utility for didactic purposes.
Centre of the painting featuring Paris’s Ivry electric power station, with the Greek god Zeus above that.
Centre of the painting featuring Paris’s Ivry electric power station, with the Greek god Zeus above that. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, © ADAGP
In its conspicuous naïvety, the entire scene has something nonchalant about it, perhaps also something quietly tongue-in-cheek. For instance, the then-new electric power station at Ivry, which forms the apex of the painting, appears to be receiving its energy directly from the world of the gods of antiquity – from the god Zeus, who is hurling lightning bolts. In the lower section of the painting, an illustrious company of no fewer than 110 scientists and inventors is having a get-together. From Gauss to Watt, Volta, Ampère and Ohm to Edison, Roentgen and Siemens – everyone who contributed in one way or another to the harnessing of electricity has been given a space. Some research apparatus can also be seen, along with Goethe, whom Dufy admired for his theory of colours. In the upper section, Dufy creates a connection between an agricultural world and an electrified industrial society. Finally, the chubby-cheeked messenger of the gods, Iris, diffuses the light of progress across the capitals of the world. The final innovation is the radio, which reaches into every household.
In the upper part of the fresco Dufy painted the history of human labour, from agriculture…
In the upper part of the fresco Dufy painted the history of human labour, from agriculture… Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, © ADAGP
…to the modern industrial society.
…to the modern industrial society. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, © ADAGP
Given such visual formulae, one marvels at the impartiality of the artist, and of his clients. It must be acknowledged that the negative consequences of ongoing electrification, in particular the increasing vulnerability of society as a result of its dependence on electricity, were not as visible then as they are today. Electricity has stamped its mark on the visual identity of western metropolises, with Paris high on this list. In the French capital, electric street lighting increasingly replaced gas lamps from the end of the 19th century. The first metro line went into operation in time for the 1900 World’s Fair. Illuminated advertising signs, as Dufy delineated them in his painting, were also part of the signature of modernity, along with brightly lit passageways and shop windows, as cultural theorist Walter Benjamin so vividly describes in his “Passagenwerk” (Arcades Project).

Radio as the crowning achievement of electrification

But it would still be some time before electricity became absolutely essential in industry, and then in private homes. Where Dufy paints, as an example of the blessings of electricity, a full orchestra that reaches radio listeners thanks to the miracle of electric power, he is illustrating in particular the promises of electricity that were new and enticing at the time. In contrast, there is almost no reference to the increasing interconnectedness of the world based on ongoing electrification. It is merely hinted at, with images of railways, telegraph and aircraft. The useful little household helpers whose mass distribution contributed to the emancipation of women make a very limited appearance in Dufy’s painting. Not surprisingly – electric stoves didn’t become standard in Europe until well after World War II. Even in the 1950s they were considered a luxury, like the first washing machines.
Thanks to electricity, radio listeners were able to listen to an orchestra playing: these possibilities were still brand-new in the 1930s.
Thanks to electricity, radio listeners were able to listen to an orchestra playing: these possibilities were still brand-new in the 1930s. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, © ADAGP
Of course, nowadays it’s easy to smile indulgently at the “Fée électricité”. But the painting can also be interpreted on another level: as an illustration that every era invents its own pictorial forms and set phrases to tell people stories and to influence them, but also as a prompt to always look at and judge such images in their proper context. The 1937 World’s Fair, for which a number of other artists such as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger received commissions, also offered the opportunity to do this with a completely different work of commissioned art. It was Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica” in the Spanish Pavilion. This work depicted the horrors of the shelling of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which had occurred a month before the opening of the World’s Fair. And on top of that the grisly scene, which would become a 20th century icon, is outshone by, of all things, a lightbulb. In Picasso’s “Guernica”, electricity brings light into the darkness in a slightly different way than with Dufy. And above all, it reminds us that soon after the orgies of light at the World’s Fair, darkness fell across Europe.

The virtual “Fée électricité”

The Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris has recently launched a virtual presentation of the “Fée électricité”, with detailed explanations in French and English of the people and inventions depicted.
Physicist and philosopher of science Etienne Klein explains the work Fée Électricité YouTube / Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).