Jean Dunand (1877-1942), La Conquête du cheval, 1935, set of 18 panels in gold and color lacquer carved in low-relief on a base of sabi, for the first-class smoking room of the Normandie. The whole: 311 x 504 cm (approx. 122.4 x 198.4 in) ; separately: 124 x 63 (48.8 x 24.8 in), 63 x 63 (24.8 x 24.8 in), 124 x 16 cm (48.8 x 6.3 in).
An ambitious man, Jean Dunand (1877-1942) entered the school of decorative arts with great expectations. He eventually found a project that made his wildest dreams come true: decorating the biggest, most beautiful ocean liner ever built. Much more than just a ship, the Normandie was a technological wonder, the apex of French art deco craftsmanship and design—and Dunand’s masterpiece. The 58-year-old devoted all of 1934 to the monumental project, overseeing the production of ornamental features, supervising the development of technical systems and carrying out the finishing work himself. Dunand, "working hard day and night, became so worn out that his health was seriously undermined for the rest of his life,” specialist Amélie Marcilhac wrote in her book about the artist. The depth of his devotion was equal to the grandeur of the Normandie, for which the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique pulled out all the stops. It took the Chantiers et Atelier de Saint Nazaire-Penhoët four years, from 1931 to 1935, to complete the 313-meter-long (almost 1,027 feet) luxury ocean liner, which was built to make the crossing between Le Havre and New York, calling at Southampton, England.
The World’s Fastest Ship
The Normandie won the highly prized Blue Riband, which was awarded to the fastest passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean, on its maiden voyage in 1935 (56 kph/39.8 mph). The greatest French artists of the day worked on furnishing and decorating the ship. Architects Richard Bouwens Van der Boijen, Roger-Henri Expert, Pierre Patout and Henri Pacon chose, among others, Jules Leleu, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Paul Follot, Raymond Subes, Georges d’Espagnat, René Lalique and Jean Perzel for the furniture, carpets, sculptures, paintings and lighting fixtures. Dunand was asked to decorate the smoking room, the corridors leading to it and part of the first-class salon. He had already acquired some experience in this area on two previous ocean liners, the Ile-de-France in 1927 and especially the Atlantique in 1929, whose lavishness and theme—tropical fauna and flora—foreshadowed the Normandie. In 1933 a fire destroyed the Atlantique, which served as a lesson: henceforth decoration was to be made of incombustible materials. This was no problem for Dunand, who for several years had been developing a fireproof substance combining very fine clay from Southeast Asia and plaster hardened with liquid lacquer in his studio at 74 rue Hallé (14th arrondissement of Paris). He called it sabi, "named after the Japanese lacquer made with sawdust, which is fireproof up to a temperature of 815°C for as long as two hours," says Ms. Marcilhac. Poured into molds, this synthetic substance hardened before being lacquered. It did not require the use of wood, which was prohibited in the schedule of specifications. In 1931 Dunand even summoned the press for demonstrations with a blowtorch.
An Incredible Destiny
Dunand’s lacquer panels survived the terrible fire that tore through the Normandie on February 9, 1942. The liner had made its final crossing on August 23, 1939, just before the Second World War began. At the outbreak of hostilities it was impounded in New York Harbor. Then the American authorities requisitioned it for use as a troopship to be re-christened the Lafayette. During the conversion work a blaze broke out and consumed the superstructure of the ship, which capsized under the weight of the tons of water used to put out the fire. Fortunately, the decoration, including Dunand’s lacquer wall panels, had been dismantled and removed in 1941, put into crates and stored in the New York warehouse of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. They returned to France after the war and were reassembled on the company’s other liners, the Ile-de-France, Liberté and Flandre. Dunand’s son, Bernard, adapted the upper parts of La Conquête du cheval (The Conquest of the Horse) and La Pêche (Fishing) for re-use in the first-class salon of the Ile-de-France. Because of the difference in height, he could only keep the three horses being pursued by two riders (today in storage at the musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris) and the fishermen in the boat (visible at the headquarters of shipbuilder CMA-CGM, the tower designed by Zaha Hadid in Marseille). François-Xavier Allix and Philippe Revol rediscovered the lower part of La Conquête du cheval during an estate sale. The panels were sold in 1948 and have been in the same collection ever since. In good condition, they attest to Dunand’s lavish work in the liner’s smoking room. They are a moving testament to the monumental whole, which originally included five compositions, each measuring six meters high by 5.80 meters wide (19.8 ft high x 19ft wide). Made of gold lacquer in a style based on Egyptian art, their theme was "games and joys of man". The fire door between the smoking room and the grand salon featured a rose compass surrounded by evocations of dawn, the night, the sea, the sun and the wind, while the smoking room panels depicted La Pêche and Les Sports on one side and La Conquête du cheval and Les Vendanges et la danse (The Wine-Grape Harvest and the Dance) on the other. In all 1,035 four-centimeter (1.57 in.) thick panels were juxtaposed, framed in brass and assembled with a clever fastening system welded to the ship’s walls.
Dunand let no one but himself work on the decoration. He transferred the final drawings with tracing paper before, armed with a gouge and a rasp, carving each part in very low relief and coating them with natural lacquer and gold leaf worn with powdered charcoal. "Jean dreams of lacquer," his wife wrote in her diary on January 3, 1919. The artist felt very early on that he could make his mark on the decorative arts with this challenging material. He certainly did.