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Skulls and Bones in Paris

Skulls and Bones in Paris

A skull caked in grayish ash. A skull a-swarm with gooey, black and coppery-green flies. An enamel skull, its ivory shine inked with evangelical buzzwords; faith, greed, hope. A gleaming silver skull wearing a delicate, fluttering crown of butterfly wings. There’s even a diamond-encrusted skull, its bony jaw provocatively agape with laughter from the great forever after.

If you’re into dead heads, then “That’s Life! Vanities: From Caravaggio to Damine Hirst” at Musee Maillol in Paris is a must-see. A celebration of “vanities” – art that represents death – and artistic creations that call attention to death known as memento mori (Latin for “Remember you must die”), the exhibition is comprised of photography, sculpture, paintings, and videos that span from ancient to contemporary times. This extravagant postmortem examines humanity’s perceptions of and fascination with death by looking back at the integral role death played in life during ancient times and the Middle Ages before turning to modern and contemporary notions of death, when artists boldly transgressed old school rules and began using death to question the roles of the individual and society. The ossified knuckles of luxury, politics, identity, entertainment, and consumption all come knocking on death’s door.

I spent the better part of a resplendently sunny day at “Vanities,” transfixed by centuries worth of death images. Contrary to the thinking that a walk through the grim reaper’s gallery would drag a soul down, the array of creativity and imagination on display dazzled me – perhaps because the show wasn’t corrupted by the flesh. Death in the form of limp, bloody or decaying flesh tends to evoke sadness, tragedy, horror, and even revulsion. (A few random examples – not at “Vanities” – that comes to mind are Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes). On the other hand, death stripped down to its bare bones (skulls and skeletons are the show’s predominant visual) removes the corporeal self – and thereby the emotion and hysteria – from the issue of mortality, so we can get down to the compelling brass tax of questioning and accepting  death as our one certain and common fate.

Theodore Gericault "The Three Skulls."
Theodore Gericault “The Three Skulls.”

Macabre perhaps, but viewed in this light “Vanities” is exceptionally thought-provoking, terribly engrossing, darkly inspirational, and at times even downright humorous.

Highlights abound. A gorgeous Pompeian mosaic of a skull set upon a wheel and flanked by flowing figures conveys death in ancient times. Standouts from the 17th century include Caravaggio’s St. Francis in Prayer (1610) and Francisco de Zurbaran’s St. Francis Contemplating a Skull (1635). Among the Moderns are 19th century paintings like Gericault’s The Three Skulls (1812-1814) and Cezanne’s Still Life, Skull and Chandelier (1866-67), as well as 20th century paintings such as Picasso’s Leeks, Skull and Pitcher (1945) and Braque’s L’Atelier au Crane (1938). Contemporary works run the gamut, from Jean Michel Basquiat’s Do Not Revenge (1982) to Joel Peter Witkin’s Cupid and Centaur in the Museum of Love (1992), to Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God Laugh (2007).

“Vanities” is on at Musee Maillol until June 28. For more info, go here.  For cool images from the show, scroll down. I’ve also included the aforementioned David and Caravaggio. Any differences in your reaction to death as flesh and/or bone? Dying to hear your thoughts!

Caravaggio, "St Francis in Prayer."
Caravaggio, “St Francis in Prayer.”
Gerhard Richter, "Schadel."
Gerhard Richter, “Schadel.”
Nicholas Rubinstein, "Mickey is Also a Rat."
Nicholas Rubinstein, “Mickey is Also a Rat.”
Philipe Pasqua, "Skull With Butterflies."
Philipe Pasqua, “Skull With Butterflies.”
Picasso, "Leeks, Skull and Pitcher."
Picasso, “Leeks, Skull and Pitcher.”
Joel-Peter Witkin, "Cupid and Psyche in the Museum of Love."
Joel-Peter Witkin, “Cupid and Psyche in the Museum of Love.”
Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Marat."

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat.”

Caravaggio, "Judith Beheading Holofernes."

Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”

Thumbnail Photo: Damien Hirst, For the Love of God Laugh

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