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Vanities from Caravaggio to Damien Hirst at Musée Maillol
Caravaggio, Saint Francis in Meditation. © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Roma.

PARIS.- Olivier Lorquin, president of the Fondation Dina Vierny – Musée Maillol, in October 2009 appointed Patrizia Nitti as art director of the institution.

The first exhibition to be curated by her is « C’est la vie ! – Vanités de Caravage à Damien Hirst » ( That’s Life ! – Vanities from Caravaggio to Damien Hirst). It will present about 160 works : paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, jewelry, objects…

Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, the first icon of the 21st century is symptomatic of the resurgence of interest in the Vanities, brought into the contemporary art world and seen everywhere: books, record covers, design, jewels…

As a metaphor of the spiritual splintering and of the world’s break-up, of a globalized planet prey to the ecological menace, powerless to contain the ferment of ideas it curtails, a parable of the desacralisation of life and death in Western societies, this omnipresence of Vanity, crystallizes the lack of meaning of a
civilization floundering amidst its thirst for control. Our spectator society is renewing with the death’s head, used as early as 1948 by the « Hell’s Angels », that gang of bikers on the Western Coast of the USA, who re-used those images with an aim to protest and anarchy. Counter-culture has become culture.

Even if this theme never ceased to haunt, fascinate, and be a cause for reflection from the mosaicists in Pompey to the engravers of medieval death’s dances, from the painters of Vanities in the 17th century up to the 20th century Surrealists, from neo-Pop Artists until the most recent agents provocateurs of the latest art forms.

Starting with this flamboyance of vanities in contemporary art and going backwards in time, by means of little shown works, even those hidden by famous collectors, the exhibition provides an unusual approach to art history.

It goes well beyond the morbid clichés attached to representations of death, to favor a hymn to life, a joyful philosophy, a final attempt to push back the limits of life.

The Elders’ “Tempus fugit”
We know that in Neolithic times the skull was worshipped, since the discovery of a skull with eyes whitened by chalk in Jericho, that dates back to 7000 years BC. And although it would be foolhardy to date the appearance of such a basic form as that of a dead body, it seems as though it was the Greeks, in Hellenistic times, who were the first in the West, to suddenly dare to represent the skeleton in order to invoke the passage of time and life’s brevity. That is what we find in Virgil’s “Tempus fugit” and in the striking Roman mosaics in Pompey, shown here.

But it was at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th centuries, that the skeletons’ dance of death was invented, as well as the “memento mori”, in which the skull with its unhinged mouth is glimpsed behind the portrait of the deceased! The horrors of the Black Death, combined with the Hundred Years’ War and the new Christian theology of the “Drama of agony” brought horrible death into the field of art. After being collective, death became individual. For a while the Renaissance put a halt to that macabre carnival. But the 17th century re-awakened that celebration in all its violence. With Caravaggio as first witness, who linked his invention of chiaroscuro in the Roman dens of iniquity to a morbid realism. His “Saint Francis”, like, later on, those of Georges de la Tour in France or of Francisco de Zurbaran in Spain, emphasized more strongly the skull in the saint’s hand than the man’s own face, left in shadows.

With the arrival of Still-lifes and, more specifically, the Vanities in Holland at the same time, death took over paintings.

Pietro Paolini slipped a skull into his “Saint Jerome meditating” and Genovesino surrounded a death’s head with the body of a sleeping putto. Nineteenth century Puritanism did not much favor those outpourings, and it took Théodore Gericault, seeking inspiration for his “Radeau de la Méduse”, to paint “Les trois Crânes” as a kind of new Trinity, or the angry Paul Cézanne who brought the genre back into favor when he painted pyramids of skulls in his studio.

The moderns’ “God is Dead!”
Positivism and the industrial age, which saw itself as immersed in progress, thought it had finished with death’s victory.

But the Great War of 1914 recalled all of its pertinence. During the thirties, facing the increase in perils, Pablo Picasso re-found Zurbaran’s inspiration when painting skulls like so many allegories of the modern world. Georges Braque in his “Atelier au crâne”, as though stimulated by “Guernica”, followed suit. As would, much later on, the Catalan Miguel Barceló when he went on to paint skulls in the Mali desert. But the massacres during World War Two and the appalled discovery of the Shoah’s death camps, turned the artists’ attention away from those overwhelming representations! – death was once again collective.

The contemporary artists’ “Who gives a damn about death!”
Post-war, neither abstraction nor its opposite Pop Art – which glorified the consumer society, wanted to renew with the art of death. Andy Warhol however, in the seventies, undertook a series of pink and green skulls. Thus we can understand his collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the eighties, around the voodoo-type charms of that Black Picasso. In reply to Basquiat’s black magical graffiti came the white magic of Keith Haring’s sinewy strokes.

In Germany, after the very Caravaggio-like vanities of Gerhard Richter, the New Wild painted the Aids years: Georg Baselitz, A.R.Penck and Markus Lüpertz leading the way. Those years are to be found again in Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Self portrait with a cane”. Death is ever present in the very real skulls painted by the Mexican Gabriel Orozco, in “Proposal for a posthumous portrait” by Douglas Gordon, the death’s heads covered in insects by Jan Fabre, or in Yan Pei Ming’s large grey skulls.

At the start of the 21st century, the representation of death has changed in nature.

All fear having been removed, the skull and the skeleton become a motif, a fashionable phenomenon. “Who gives a damn about death!” proclaimed the years 2000, when Marina Abramovic carried around a skeleton on her back, Cindy Sherman covered a skull in flowers, the Chapman brothers personified “Migraine” by means of a rotting Frankenstein’s head.

Does death become us so well?

Musée Maillol | Olivier Lorquin | Vanities from Caravaggio to Damien Hirst |

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