Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The story of the Salon Russe

Pops of spring color. 1:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016. It was a sunny, chilly, windy day in New York yesterday with the midday temperature in the low 50s. You needed a coat to avoid catching the cold that seems to be going around.

It was a brisk and beautiful day. The pear trees have begun their gossamer trip across the city, promising at least another week or ten days of magical beauty. The city remains comparatively quieter this week as many schools are out and not only are people away, but the midtown crowds of tourists are smaller right now.

Juan Pablo and Pilar in Paris in 2007 where we first met.
Meanwhile, I had lunch this past Monday with Juan Pablo Molyneux, the international interior designer. Juan-Pablo has commissions all over the world and travels frequently. I first met him and his wife Pilar several years at a dinner they hosted for the American Friends of Versailles at their house in Paris (Diner de Reve for the American Friends of Versailles). I know little about his clientele although it’s clearly very high-end and private.  I learned at Monday’s lunch that he had institutional clients also, that he had just completed work on the Salon Russe at the Palais des Nations – the UN Headquarters in Geneva.

The Palais des Nations (or Palace of Nations) was built between 1929 and 1938 to serve as headquarters of the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1920, a direct result of the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.  The idea was World Peace. Remember that one? 

Anyway, as the world moved into the 1930s and the Axis powers (Nazi Germany) came to the fore, La Société des Nations (League of Nations) foundered. By 1946, the Second World War over, it was concluded that it had failed in its mission. The United Nations was created to replace it. Thusly the Palais des Nations continues as a UN office, the largest second only to New York, and is where many UN Organizations are hosted.

When it was originally built for the League of Nations (LN), many leading nations in the world became members. The Palais des Nations represented an idea, a vision of a society of nations capable of preventing all wars, and of working in solidarity for the common good. Today it remains one of the largest UN offices today, second only to the New York headquarters, and many United Nations organizations are hosted there.
The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
The official opening of the League of Nations, November 15th, 1920.
Russia under Josef Stalin was a member but Stalin was not especially interested. When each nation was assigned space for its meetings and receptions, Stalin’s lack of interest motivated the designers and their clients to allocate a relatively small space for Russia. Stalin remained disinterested and for many decades, the Salon Russe lingered unattended.

Renewed interest and energy appeared with President Putin. When he first visited Russia’s “salon” he accidentally first entered the Salon de Francais which is large and splendidly designed and decorated -- and Mr. Putin was duly impressed until he learned he wasn’t in Russia’s Salon but in France’s. When he was then directed to Russia’s, he was very disappointed in the deteriorated shape it was in. Its smaller size compared to France did not go unacknowledged. However, Mr. Putin took a practical turn in remedying the situation: he decided that the solution was to reburbish the gallery and make it “a jewel.”

The Salon Français, which Mr. Putin mistook for the Salon Russe.
To expedite the matter, Juan Pablo had been invited by the Russian Federation to be consulted for the renovation of the interior décor of the Salon Russe in the Palais. Juan Pablo may well have been familiar to President Putin because he had previously created the Pavilion of Treaties at Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna, near St. Petersburg.

An admirer of Russian culture, which so often inspires his projects, Juan Pablo loves visiting Russia, for both personal and professional reasons, and counts many Russians among his clients and friends. This year is the 80th anniversary of the Palais des Nations inauguration in 1936, making it all the more exciting!

In its original creation numerous architects and artisans came together to work on this international architectural project. They were committed to presenting the world with the finest work of the time. The French Salon was decorated by Jules Leleu, who was one of the most prominent decorators of the arts décoratifs in France in the 1930s.

Over time, eminent architects and interior designers have left their mark on the Palais, including Jacques Carlu, Marc Simon, Alfred Porteneuve, René Prou, and Charlotte Perriand. Evidently Hitler’s architect Albert Speer – whose monumental style so appealed to Hitler – was one of the architects involved although his name and presence has been deleted from its history.

The original decor of the official spaces often included elements of monumental proportions (hence Herr Speer’s involvement). They were created by the finest international and French artisans, namely Raymond Subes and Jean Perzel. The frescoes in the Council Chamber are the work of José Maria Sert.
Council Chamber room with 1934 mural by artist José Maria Sert
The insignia of the League of Nations and one of the light fixtures found throughout the old building's main hallway.
After it was built, there were more contributions made by each member state to enrich the artistic and cultural holdings in the Palais, including works by Clemens Weiss and Miquel Barcelo.

Juan Pablo was challenged to match this international achievement considering the extremely high quality of the earlier creations. He decided not be restrained by them, breaking with the omnipresent Art Deco style and focusing more on decorative and iconic aspects from Russian heritage. His objective was to showcase the great moments in Russian creativity, bringing them together in a kind of time-lapse, to give the impression of the rooms having been gradually enriched over successive generations.
Ceiling sculpture by Miquel Barceló in Room XX of the Palais des Nations.
One of his main challenges was to combine all the elements needed to suggest the passage of 300 years within such relatively small rooms. He started from a neoclassical foundation – the end of the 18th Century – and proceeded to the period following Russia’s victory over Napoleon when Russia was at the height of its power.

The ribbon cutting at the opening of the Salon Russe (left to right): Juan Pablo Molyneux, Andrei Bouigrov, Sergey Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs,and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.
He borrowed elements from the Russian palatial style of the period, including the scagliola (a form of trompe l’œil in marble or decorative stone mastered by 18th Century Russian craftsmen. He used very light wooden panelling for the walls, with the floors inspired by the marquetry floors made from different species of Nordic wood. His main references were the Pavlovsk Palace for its scagliola and mahogany doors with bronze decorations, and Ekaterina in Tsarkoye Selo for its parquet flooring. The floors in the Salon Russe were produced by master craftsmen from the region of Moscow in Russia.

The scagliola walls in the antichamber were a combination of yellow and grey ochre veining. The parquet floors combined five different woods arranged in large geometrical designs. This room required particular attention because it adjoins the Salon Français, one of the most prestigious set rooms in the Palais des Nations, and which also serves as its entrance.

In the Salon itself, the red birch and bird’s eye maple veneers with ebony inlays alternate with panels hung with striped, cut velvet fabric. The curtains are made of silk with elegant braiding trim, and the under-curtains are made of taffeta.
Entering the Salon Russe at the Palais des Nations ...
A portrait of Catherine the Great by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder.
The furnishings were varied to suggest the style changes over time. The (timeless) sofas, chairs and tables are side by side with reproductions of Russian furniture with a prestigious provenance. The writing desk, for example is a copy of the famous original by David Roentgen in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This reproduction was specially made for the project by one of the most celebrated French cabinet-makers.
The antechamber of the Salon Russe at the Palais des Nations.
A corner of the Salon Russe.
The paintings are reproductions of famous originals, such as the portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder and St George slaying the Dragon by Raphael, which is in the Louvre in Paris, and is a reference to the patron saint of Moscow.

With the ceilings Juan Pablo referred to the Russian Avant-Garde movement which revolutionized Western art at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a time when Russia was teeming with artistic currents and movements, opening the way for modern art. For this he chose two artworks by Kasimir Malevitch, Supremus n° 58 and Supremus n° 55, both dating from 1916. Juan Pablo had them reproduced in monumental size for the ceilings, as if the painter himself had been commissioned to create these frescoes, as Juan Pablo pointed out, was the case with Marc Chagall, who painted the ceiling of the Paris Opéra, and Georges Braque who did the same for the Louvre.
The full view of the Salon Russe with a copy of "St. George slaying the Dragon" by Raphael, which is in the Louvre, and is a reference to the patron saint of Moscow, with the ceiling artworks copies of the original by Malevitch, 1916.
The reduced dimensions of the Salon Russe produce an intimate space whose cozy character needed to be conserved. Yet its precious and grand qualities came through the use of noble and rare materials. When combined with choice furnishings, the complete design exemplifies the taste and refinement of a Russia that is both timeless and eternal. Everyone was very pleased, including presumably the President, Mr. Putin. The jewel materialized.
Juan Pablo Molyneux, Sergey Lavrov, and Andrei Bougrov at the inauguration of the Salon Russe.

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