Death and Life in Paris
“Remember that you are going to die.”

Hugues Fourau
Fieschi’s Decapitated Head
© Musée des Beaux-arts d'Orléans, cliché François Lauginie
Exhibition: Crime and Punishment, musée d’Orsay

Nicolas Rubinstein
Sans titre , 2006
Os, résine, polyester et acier
70 x 27 x 25 cm
Collection particulière
© Jean-Alex Brunelle
Exhibition: Vanités, Musée Maillol

Death6Niki de Saint Phalle
Tête de mort II,  1988
polyester peint

115 x 125 x 90 cm
Collection particulière
© Galerie JGM
Exhibition: Vanités

Death8from New Guinea
Exhibition: Musée Branly


Paris is the embodiment of sensuous experience: enjoyment of the fine arts, music, culinary experiences paired with excellent wine and if you’re lucky, love.  But also the malefic sensory experiences of excessively crowded streets, noise, pollution, shit on the sidewalks.  I suppose I should not have been surprised that the theme of my recent experiences in Paris museums was to be centered on ideas about death; perhaps the single most motivating encounter with sensual life—its absence.

Remembering that life is short perhaps arouses us to more fully enjoy the good things that come our way, however brief.  Remembering that life is short is sometimes all that can be said about the subject of Vanitas painting traditions, but putting 160 of them together, ranging from Pompeii mosaics (1st century) to Marina Abramovic (2008), does nothing to inspire us about how to approach life or death—or art for that matter. The Musée Maillol exhibition, C’est La Vie! Vanités de Caravage à Damien Hirst, perhaps puts forward, with a few exceptions, the inability of contemporary art to create affect, thus emphasizing the Latin root of vanitas—emptiness. If there is a desire in this exhibition to explore the spiritual fragmentation of western society and invite viewers to find meaning beyond this collection of skulls, a poignant contrast of these representations next to the skulls from Indonesia at the Musée Branly down the road, would emphasize the potent ancestor rituals associated with the later and the vacuous desire to make art out of symbols in the former.  It strikes me that the skulls at Branly were not created as ‘art’ and yet our understanding of their purpose in society—as part of a process of connecting the past to the present, to transform death into a nourishing present—would certainly be a part of how we would hope to be inspired by art.

The city of light explores death through another exhibition this summer at the Musée d’Orsay titled after Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”  This historically fascinating exhibition explores the problem of murder and social response to it, beginning with Cain but mostly focusing on the 200-year dialogue about capital punishment from 1791 to its abolition in France in 1981.  Here is an exhibition that brings together a vast array of objects (from the guillotine to fine art) organized to shed light on difficult questions without providing simplistic answers.  Bravo to the curators, Jean Clair, Phillipe Comar and Laurence Madeline!  There is so much to be said about this show, but what ultimately affected me, after hours of intense exploration of the questions of violence in society, of how we have dealt with it, analyzing mass violence and individual murder, the victim, the murderer, art and its “aestheticizing” of violence, science and its “objectifying” explanations…. Why does one murder?  What are the characteristics of a murderer?  Is it an aberration of humanity, a mental illness?  Is justice possible in the face of all of this?  Are some forms of murder heroic?   —after all of this, we are left off in the last room with the surrealists and a few others.  By this time I am almost ill from the overwhelming ingestion of callous brutality, but the final painting sent me running for the fresh air of the postimpressionists at the far end of the museum.  It was a large, and truly ugly painting (shouldn’t a painting about violence be ugly?) by film director David Lynch in which a man is portrayed on the left side of the canvas, and a woman, apparently his rape victim, on the right.  A short dialogue is written on the painting.  He asks her if she wants to know what he really thinks?  She answers, a resounding NO.

Pacia Sallomi
July, 2012