Sunday Culture: 
JEAN-MICHEL OTHONIEL

Without realizing it, tourists who visit Paris are quite familiar with sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel due to the famous Palais Royal — Musée du Louvre métro entrance, where the aluminum cupolas bedecked with coloured glass spheres brighten the day of everyone who passes through Place Colette. But on May 11 this year, the entire world is going to discover him with the unveiling of the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau at the Château de Versailles. This outstanding fountain sculpture project was carried out in collaboration with landscape architect Louis Benech in this iconic setting so symbolic of French history.

—By Stéphane Le Duc

 

Image Credit: GINIES/SIPA

While Jean-Michel Othoniel is known for his playful projects, which elicit childlike wonderment, his quest for happiness was long, as his early work of wax, lead or sulphur castings conveyed much darker sentiments: “It took me 25 years to find my way out of that early stage of torment, angst and solitude. I wanted to find some joy in my work. It took me a very long time to find the keys and learn how to enter into this new work.” 

Love of travel—While travelling through the Aeolian Islands between Palermo and Naples, he discovered obsidian, a very opaque black glass originating from volcanic flows of pumice stone. The volcanologist travelling with him virtually challenged him by saying that by melting this rock he could transform it into glass. He decided to further his research by working for two years with glass makers at a Paris research centre (CIRVA).

In the early 1990s, he began the most important change of his life. He opened to the concept of collaboration and discovered the magic of glass, a medium that continues to fascinate him: This material is so seductive that as an artist, it takes all I have to avoid the temptation of the decorative or the purely seductive. Glass forces us to be vigilant. This material is also a common denominator that speaks to everyone, because we have all had experience with glass from childhood, whether bits of glass found on a beach or sunlight streaming through a glass of water. This is not a sophisticated medium but rather a popular material, and I like that a lot. I like to evoke wonderment and marvel in people. At first I worked from drawings. I made drawings every day, some of which would result in sculptures and others never.”

Coeur hotel dieu 1©JMO

His work captivated landscape architect Louis Benech, who in 2011 suggested that they jointly enter a contemporary garden competition held by the Château de Versailles to breathe new life into the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau that Louis XVI had destroyed and that the great storm of 1999 had completely erased: I felt a lot of pressure as a sculptor installing a permanent work in Versailles after three centuries of nothing. I started by taking a good look at the face of Louis XIV, as he is the subject of this garden, where he is even depicted in various allegories. My intuition told me there was a link between the garden and dance. In my research, I happened upon a fantastic book by Raoul Auger-Feuillet showing baroque dance steps that Louis XIV wanted to preserve in written form to pass them on to the court, then the royal ballet and finally to foreign courts for French-style dance. I stumbled on this book in the Boston library, it was an incredible find. I saw this baroque script that formed knots and loops on the page as evidence of a certain link between this writing and my own. I decided I would rewrite these forms to have the king dance across the water three centuries later.”

His idea won over the jury because it forms part of the history of this magnificent chateau. Jean-Michel Othoniel imagined spirals of blown glass pearls intersected by gold leaves to pay tribute to the Sun King whose steps have danced across the centuries. Three dances in two pools open a new chapter of history: When the first works were installed, it was very moving to touch the soil of André Lenôtre, Louis XIV, where the king danced. I think any artist would be overwhelmed, but as a French artist, this is unimaginable. I know it will be hard to find another project this complete and wonderful.”

©PHILIPPE CHANCEL

 

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Written on: July 12, 2020