The Last Guillotine

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on March 24, 2010

Crime et châtiment / Crime and Punishment
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 16 March – 27 June 2010

Théodore Géricault, "Etude de pieds et de mains," 1818-1819 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre)

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.

Exhibition catalogue by Jean Clair (Editions Gallimard, 2010) ISBN: 978-2070128747, 49€

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As reported at History Today (17 March 2010),

One of the last guillotines to exist in mainland France went on display yesterday in a new exhibition entitled ‘Crime et châtiment’ at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The model was designed by Léon Alphonse Berger in 1872. The curator of the exhibition is former justice minister, Robert Badinter, who successfully abolished the death penalty in the first year of Mitterrand’s presidency in 1981. The last person to be guillotined in France was Hamida Djandoubi at Baumettes prison in Marseille in 1977. The guillotine is displayed alongside over 450 works of art, including sculptures by Rodin and paintings by Degas and Munch, in this exhibition which explores attitudes to crime, rehabilitation and punishment from the French revolution onwards.

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