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Crime and Punishment Explored in Exhibition at Musée d'Orsay
Guests and journalists look at the painting 'Etude de Pieds et de Mains' by French artist Theodore Gericault on display during the exhibition 'Crime and Punishment' at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, France, 15 March 2010. The exhibition is based on a project of Robert Badinter, a French lawyer who succeeded in abolishing the death penalty in France while being Minister of Justice, and includes paintings, sculptures and other works of art or artifacts related to the subject. EPA/HORACIO VILLALOBOS.

PARIS.- On 30 September 1981, the French Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals, Robert Badinter, successfully brought about the abolition of the death penalty in France. It had taken two hundred years of discussion to reach this point: from 1791, when Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau addressed the Constituent Assembly and called for the abolition of capital punishment. From 1791 to 1981, from the French Revolution to the present day, there had been two hundred years of passionate debate about the sense and the value of a penalty which, having once depended on the omnipotence of a god or on a king’s absolute power - tempered by grace – would now only be meted out, in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, by man, and man alone. But can man be the judge of his fellow man’s actions?

With a long history of dark inspiration, modern literature has resounded with these struggles, and created many, memorable criminal characters, in works ranging from Sade to Baudelaire and Barbey d'Aurevilly, from Dostoyevsky, whence the title of the exhibition, to Camus’ The Outsider... The figure of the murderer, with all his negative energy and complexity, is the dark side of the hero, his ambiguous double, the part of him that transgresses and becomes all the more disturbing for being so seductive. A source of stories for magazines (from Lacenaire to Violette Nozières), and soon after, for illustrated daily newspapers, the powerful fantasy of violent crime was greatly increased through novels and the theatre. Linking murder to sexual abuse even became a must in pulp fiction and in the images this conveyed or evoked.

In fact, the contamination of the visual arts by the theme of crime, by newspaper articles, and even by images in the popular press, was another great feature of the century. There are many example of this in painting: from Prud’hon’s Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime [Justice et la Vengeance divine poursuivant le Crime] to Valloton’s Nemesis, from the Fualdès Affair that so fascinated Géricault, to Delacroix’s Louvel, from Victor Hugo’s hanged men to Warhol’s electric chairs. New subjects, such as the female criminal, appeared and caught the imagination. Condemned by David, rehabilitated by Baudry, then presented once again as a dark character by Edvard Munch, Charlotte Corday joined the ranks of mythical figures, from Lady Macbeth to Lucie de Lamermoor. The issue was also raised of the relationship between madness, genius and crime, from Delacroix’s prisoners to those of Egon Schiele.

The greatest painters are those whose heightened representations of crime or of capital punishment result in the most striking works. These range from Goya and Géricault to Lautrec and Picasso. Like opera, the cinema was not slow to assimilate the equivocal charms of extreme violence, transformed by its representation into something pleasurable, perhaps even into sensual pleasure.

At the end of the 19th century, a new theory appeared purporting to establish a scientific approach to the criminal mind. It was Lombroso - 2009 marks the two hundredth anniversary of his death – who developed this school of anthropology, setting out not only the character traits he claimed were found in criminals, but also the physiological features, like stigmata, all transmitted genetically, in his view, through atavism. Acceptance of this theory also decriminalised the individual to some extent and criminalised his social class and then his race, or at least made them open to scientific investigation, the procedures for which Bertillon would later develop. This theory of anthropology concluded that a man whose fate is preordained by his anatomy, could not be held fully accountable. Theories such as these would have a considerable influence on images in painting, sculpture and photography. As a regular visitor to the courts, like Daumier whom he greatly admired, Degas liked to examine and decipher the faces of the accused, hoping to detect the “ science” of the criminologists. And his little Rat in a tutu (The adolescent corps de ballet at the Paris Opera were known as petits rats), far from being an innocent young girl, is a dangerous, plague-mongering animal. Sexual violence also haunted Degas; it could well have led to the excesses of Neo Baroque freneticism in Cézanne’s early works; it then appeared in Picasso’s work, before finding its full expression in the works of Dix, Grosz and the later works of Munch.

Finally we should remember that the motif of the gibbet, the garrotte and the guillotine was ever-present, even though architects were creating panoptic designs for prisons where the individual could be observed at any time. For several years now, a new issue has arisen in relation to crime and punishment: the crime of passion, the compulsive crime of the serial killer, should they be subject to psychiatric investigation and commitment to an asylum, or to the judgement of the court and imprisonment? Beyond crime, there is still the perpetual problem of Evil, and beyond social circumstances, metaphysical anxiety. Art, particularly art between 1820 and1920, can provide a spectacular expression of this. The aesthetic of violence and the violence of the aesthetic - the exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay aims to bring them together through music, literature and a wide range of images.

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