A sparkling honor for a glass master

PARIS – In a ceremony Wednesday, artist Jean-Michel Othoniel joined one of the highest cultural institutions in the French state, the Ac...


PARIS – In a ceremony Wednesday, artist Jean-Michel Othoniel joined one of the highest cultural institutions in the French state, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and became immortal.

The “Immortals,” as academy inductees are called, typically wear a classic interpretation of the green embroidered uniform first demanded under Napoleon. Othoniel adorned himself with Dior.

As the ceremony took place under the golden dome of the Institute of France, Othoniel sparkled like the colorful glass bead sculptures he is known for.

The artist drew an original design for the olive branches that traditionally adorn the costume of immortals. A team of Dior craftsmen sumptuously embroidered the temples, with shiny golden strands and green silk, on the chest, lapels, cuffs and waist of Othoniel’s black coat and pants, finishing their creation with tiny glass beads.

“It is more than a garment,” he told his immortal companions and guests. “It is an enveloping and protective sculpture.

These are heady days for the master glass manipulator, 57, who suddenly became famous in 2000 by transforming the entrance to the Palais Royal metro here into a double canopy of colored glass beads.

His induction into the prestigious French academy coincides with the “Narcissus theorem”, a large retrospective of his work at the Petit Palais which opened its doors last week and will run until January 2, 2022. More than 70 works installed in the rooms and the garden of the museum are presented for the first time in France, 10 years after its last retrospective at the Center Pompidou.

The Petit Palais, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 as a temple of the beauty of Fine Arts, is the ideal setting for Othoniel’s joyful reinterpretation of the myth of Narcissus, who died lovingly contemplating his own reflection and resurrected like a flower. Finished the current of death which marked the first creations of Othoniel; its purpose here is to embrace life.

“My role as an artist today is to bring wonder and enchantment,” Othoniel said in an interview, as he strolled through the exhibition. “I asked myself: ‘What is the Mona Lisa at the Petit Palais, what is the masterpiece?’ and finally, I realized that the masterpiece is the architecture itself. So I created a dialogue between my sculptures and this dream machine.

Upon entering the museum, on the grand staircase leading to a carved stone archway and gilded bronze door, Othoniel joined 1,000 aquamarine-colored glass bricks made by artisans in Firozabad, India. The structure, called “Blue River”, greets visitors as it descends to the sidewalk below.

The artist’s most recognizable pieces are sculptures in which he loops together giant colorful mirror glass balls made in a workshop in Basel, Switzerland. In the garden, Othoniel hung gold glass necklaces on trees and centered monumental golden lotuses in reflective pools.

“Jean-Michel is as much a poet as a sculptor”, declared Christophe Leribault, the outgoing director of the Petit Palais, who succeeded the direction of the Orsay Museum October 5. “We have never given such a broad carte blanche to an artist.”

Othoniel grew up in a modest, middle-class family in Saint-Étienne, a town in central France whose coal mines were still active during his childhood. “It was a very sad and very boring city,” he said. “It didn’t lend itself to the dream.” He took refuge at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the small but exceptional museum of contemporary art in the city.

During the summer holidays, his parents (his teaching mother, his engineer father) explored Europe – and its museums – by car. His regular visits to an aunt and uncle in Andalusia opened him to the rich architecture and seductive power of southern Spain. “For a little boy, going for miles of orange groves and smelling the scent of orange blossoms was magical,” he said.

At 18, Othoniel left Saint-Étienne for Paris. He worked in a small independent art studio for a year before graduating from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy outside of Paris. In the 1980s, the school was emerging as a center of conceptualism and mixed media adventures.

“It was really an experimental school, where we had lessons in photography, design and poetry, through literature, English, painting and sculpture, all mixed up,” he said. .

In his early years as a sculptor, Othoniel dabbled in wax, sulfur and obsidian, before switching to glass. He still occasionally works with obsidian, a black volcanic glass. During a sword presentation that followed his induction as an “immortal” on Wednesday, he received his own version of the ritual saber. He had carved his broad blade out of a piece of obsidian; the Belgian sculptor Johan creten, his 33-year-old companion, designed his oversized double-knot bronze handle.

He lives with Creten in an apartment in the Marais district. For eight months, they have been working together in a vast red brick building built over a century ago as a metallurgical factory in Montreuil, in the Paris suburbs. The main work and exhibition area for Othoniel’s sculptures is in a giant hall under a cast iron and glass roof. There are offices, a garage for storage, a workshop, meeting spaces and a studio for shooting.

Besides finding success in the art world, Othoniel has become a favorite in the Parisian fashion world. The Cartier Foundation offered him a personal exhibition in 2003. Louis Vuitton and Chanel commissioned it. The cult perfumer Diptyque created a scented candle and an “Othoniel Rosa” eau de toilette.

Othoniel said he had long resisted becoming a member of the Academy, which he saw as a stifling state institution for older and trusted artists, until some younger members changed their minds.

Today he has embraced his new status as a leader of the arts in France. He was recently appointed director of Villa Les Pinsons, a cultural residence for 15 young artists owned and managed by the Academy since the 1950s in the town of Chars, 50 km north of Paris.

“I want to make the Academy more contemporary, to work on passing on what we know to the younger generation – and also to help the older ones,” he said. He joined an elite club that included photographers Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Sebastião Salgado and architect Norman Foster.

Long after the end of the Petit Palais exhibition, Othoniel will leave an indelible mark on the building with a generous donation.

While exploring the museum spaces for the exhibition, Othoniel said, he noticed that the dome above the museum’s grand Art-Nouveau staircase was bare. “There was a tiny hole at the top of the ceiling. And I was like, ‘Ah, if there is a hole, it’s because there was a time when something was hanging here,’ ”he said.

He remembered “The Crown of the Night”, a hanging sculpture of colored glass beads that he had installed in a forest in the Netherlands years before, then put away in boxes. The artwork was a perfect fit for the Petit Palais space, so much so that Leribault, its director, said he would buy it and hang it there permanently if the museum could find the money.

“So I said, ‘Listen, Christophe, I’m ready to give it to you!’ Said Othoniel. “The Petit Palais is a free museum, so anyone can come, anytime, just for five minutes, to see my crown.”

“It was supposed to be,” he added. “Destiny. It had to happen.

And that’s what he did.

Charlotte Force contributed to the research.

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