A five-storey, 600,000 cubic feet industrial space is transformed for this walkthrough exhibit.
Stéphane Barret is entrusted with creating some of the most convincing doppelgangers of the famous, from Charlie Chaplin and Angelina Jolie, to Bruce Willis and beloved French singer Édith Piaf. For the past 18 years, Barret has sculpted the heads of celebrities for the Musée Grévin, Paris’ pre-eminent wax museum. “It starts to feel alive, when I have placed the eyes and when I get the expression right,” he says. We asked Barret to walk us through the process of making a wax figure.
How did you become a sculptor for Musée Grévin?
I originally worked in industrial engineering and would sculpt and paint in the evening after work. [In 1993,] I quit my job and moved to Paris. I studied design then worked in prototyping, making props for advertising clients as well as Disneyland. Bruce Willis was my first sculpture for Grévin in 2000.
How does the process of creating a new figure start?
We start with a two-hour consultation. The person stands on a revolving plate in a pose and we take photos to work from later. We scan the head and body with a 3D scanner and record any jewelry and tattoos, as well as the colour of hair, skin and teeth. The museum always tries to meet the personality, but, without a meeting, we do a body casting to find someone who has the same build and height as them.
What might surprise us?
The hair is real and is implanted strand by strand. It takes [around] a month and a half to add hair, eyebrows and any facial hair. Each sculpture starts with very long hair, which can look strange before it’s cut. Sometimes the celebrity will bring their own hairdresser to cut and style it.
Is it easier to create sculptures of men or women?
Older women and men are easier because there are points of reference with wrinkles and smile lines—when you don’t have these markers, a smallest misplaced detail can ruin the resemblance.
How are they maintained?
A team comes every morning to fix the hairstyles and check if there are any problems, such as scratches. There is also a regular restoration schedule. The most [popular] personalities have two heads, so [even when one head is being restored] they are always on display for visitors.
Do you have a favourite?
I don’t have a favourite, but I was happy to do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. [I recall] an interview with Pitt where they showed him all his sculptures in museums around the world, and he said Musée Grévin’s version was his favourite. Angelina Jolie was the most difficult I have done; she has a very angular face and yet not so angular at the same time. We did her with a fairly neutral expression, which is very difficult.
What happens to the models that are no longer displayed?
There is a warehouse in Paris where old models from the early 20th century to today are kept. There are shelves and shelves of them. It’s like a scene from Indiana Jones. Who would you like to sculpt? I am really attracted to the legends of American cinema, such as Jack Nicholson. To sculpt Jack Nicholson would be a dream for me.
Barret’s Paris Guide for Art Lovers
The world-famous museum attracts tourists with its big hitters—the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo—but it also houses an impressive collection of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic art.
This striking building, designed by Frank Gehry and located by the Bois de Boulogne, is immediately recognizable by its vast glass “sails.” Inside, you’ll find eclectic and thoughtfully curated exhibitions.
Barret loves this area for its boutiques and unique restaurants and galleries. He recommends the contemporary art space, Galerie Perrotin, as well as iconic modern art temple, the Centre Pompidou.
[This story appears in the October 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]