Crimes et châtiments at the Musée d’Orsay

Crimes et châtiments at the Musée d'Orsay
Lady Macbeth with the daggers, Johann Heinrich Füssli (1812)

The exhibition not to miss in Paris right now? It is Crimes et châtiments at the Musée d’Orsay, a plural display of thematics around the theme of art and crime, crime and punishment. Both exhaustive and inspiring, the exhibition discusses objects of punishment (the guillotine in its freezing aura, the mechanism of an electric chair, a door tagged by prisoners), typologies of crimes (infanticide, parricide, regicide, fratricide, deicide…), criminal figures (bandits, femmes fatales, witches…), mostly filtered through art.

“J’ai découvert que ce qui intéresse l’artiste, c’est la violation des  interdits fondamentaux, le sacrilège, le sexe, la mort”, says Robert Badinter, the man who has abolished death penalty in France in 1981. He is also the man who imagined the exhibition, curated by Jean Clair.

You will find major artworks by Goya, Warhol, David, Géricault, Munch, Füssli, between many others. The exhibition with its 475 pieces helps us to recognise the disturbing fascination artists  have towards crime – and thus question our relationship with crime. Crime is a doubtless topos of art, it is also an original topos of mythology and religion (which often provided the most famous art themes). But crime is also a sociologic reality that has evolved through the ages, and this exhibition adds different point of views to those of art: the science of criminology is illustrated in many rooms, with Lombroso’s founding essays or Alphonse Bertillon’s photographical and procedural inventions (he was a french criminologist who invented the police scientifique, and developed many technical ways to photograph a crime scene). Criminology is a science, but it is also sociologic evidence, and it has created many philosophical problems. Those philosophical problems join those evoked by writers and painters:

“But what then is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared”. Albert Camus

There is also a further aspect about Crime and Punishment, documented with fascinating material: crime through journalism (or crime through information, through propaganda). Covers of the Petit journal, French Revolution caricatures, crime news…
Covers of the Petit journal, The Drama in Avenue des Ternes.
The Drama in Avenue des Ternes, supplement of The Petit Journal, 1892
The plurality of the exhibition brings a plurality of point of views to the spectator, and underlines the multiple facets of a crime. Subjects go from domestic crime to ‘anodine’ sexual crimes, but there is also large room for national affairs, like the Marat affair of 1793, or the Fualdès case, etc.
Edvard Munch, La mort de Marat, 1907
Edvard Munch, La mort de Marat, 1907

From Breton to the guillotine, from Scarface to Füssli, from moulded criminal heads to romantic crime figures: the exhibition is really a kaleidoscopic overview of an illuminating and often half-forgotten theme in museography, without any superficial lyrism, nor any philosophical standpoint. It is a plural statement based upon the vision of geniuses and thinkers, that haunts one long after the visit itself. Shocking, moving, in a word indispensable.
If you have the chance to visit it, don’t forget to take a look at the specific bookshop, because you will find a brilliant selection of  books for further reading. It goes from psychanalisis to art history, from criminology to political studies.

A must.

Further information:

Crime et châtiment, Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris
Every day except monday, 9h30-18h, open thursday until 21h45
Fee: 9,5€ / 7€
16.03.2010 – 27.06.2010

The statement of  the Musée d’Orsay:

The exhibition Crime and Punishment looks at a period of some two hundred years: from 1791, when Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau called for the abolition of the death penalty, to 30 September 1981, the date the bill was passed to abolish it in France. Throughout these years, literature created many criminal characters. The title of the exhibition is itself taken from a work by Dostoyevsky. In the press, particularly the illustrated daily newspapers, the powerful fantasy of violent crime was greatly increased through novels.

At the same time, the criminal theme came into the visual arts. In the work of the greatest painters, Goya, Géricault, Picasso and Magritte, images of crime or capital punishment resulted in the most striking works. The cinema too was not slow to assimilate the equivocal charms of extreme violence, transformed by its representation into something pleasurable, perhaps even into sensual pleasure.

It was at the end of the 19th century that a new theory appeared purporting to establish a scientific approach to the criminal mind. This tried to demonstrate that the character traits claimed to be found in all criminals, could also be found in their physiological features. Theories like these had a great influence on painting, sculpture and photography. Finally, the violence of the crime was answered by the violence of the punishment: how can we forget the ever-present themes of the gibbet, the garrotte, the guillotine and the electric chair?

Beyond crime, there is still the perpetual problem of Evil, and beyond social circumstances, metaphysical anxiety. Art brings a spectacular answer to these questions. The aesthetic of violence and the violence of the aesthetic – this exhibition aims to bring them together through music, literature and a wide range of images.

More information:

About the exhibition

The Bertillon system