But it is Frey who provides the meat of the exhibition, with his intensely additive processes and his lush and complex scenarios against which stories could be acted out. These were not necessarily unpolitical and provide a reminder of the times in which he lived. One series of backdrops, that would have been used for what were effectively the news broadcasts of the day, include a railway station, a French colonial village, a factory and the courts of justice – key components of late 19th French life.
I suspect, though, that it’s the most intricate details of Frey’s productions that draw visitors in, particularly the glass plates that he painted by hand. For a 1905 production of Faust, Frey designed the final act, the Ride to the Abyss, adding intense moving imagery to the musical thrill of this journey to damnation. Here Frey’s process is clearly revealed: first, beautifully executed works on paper where witch-like figures are picked out in white paint on a charcoal black background; then a transformative process by which the resulting photo-gravure is hand coloured with gouache, and the witches broomsticks are alight with brilliant yellow and gold flames.
By the 1920s, Frey was doing the rounds as an expert of the light projections, regularly giving lectures explaining his craft and in 1925 publishing a book called “La Technique des Decors Lumineux”. But interesting as the unravelling of the process might be, like film today, it’s still the sum of the parts that dazzles.
Variations - Les Décors lumineux d'Eugène Frey, Villa Paloma, Monaco, until 30 August 2020