Crime and Punishment
15 March – 27 June 2010
On 30 September 1981, the French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter succeeded in having capital punishment abolished in France. Debates over the issue had dragged on for two centuries.
Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau had asked the members of the constituent assembly to abolish capital punishment way back in 1791.
1791 – 1981: two centuries, from the French Revolution to the present day, of heated arguments over the meaning and value of a punishment which, once the province of divine omnipotence or absolute royal authority – tempered by the right of pardon – would, by Enlightenment reasoning, now be administered by man and man alone. But can man be the judge of other men’s acts? The struggle touched a chord in modern literature and writers such as Sade, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Dostoyevsky, whose novel furnished the title of the exhibition, and Camus (The Outsider)… drew on a long tradition of the dark side of humankind to create a swarm of unforgettable criminals. The figure of the murderer, a complex knot of negative energy, is the shadow cast by the hero, his ambiguous double, his transgressive side, highly disturbing because of its powerful attraction. Newspapers and later illustrated dailies hounded criminals such as Lacenaire and Violette Nozières, and fiction and drama nourished fantasies of murder. Murder coupled with sexual abuse became a feature of sensational literature and the images derived from it. Because the visual arts were contaminated by criminal themes, crime reporting and even illustrations in the gutter press became another great feature of the century. Examples abound in painting: Prud’hon’s Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, Valotton’s Nemesis, the Fualdès affair which fascinated Géricault, Delacroix’s Louvel, Victor Hugo’s hanged men, Warhol’s electric chairs… The collective imagination was fired by new themes, such as female criminality.
Stigmatised by David, rehabilitated by Baudry and blackened once more by Edvard Munch, Charlotte Corday joined mythical figures like Lady Macbeth and Lucy of Lammermoor.
The relationship between madness, genius and crime was also explored in the prisoners painted by Delacroix or Egon Schiele. The greatest painters were those in whom the exacerbated representation of crime and capital punishment gave rise to devastating works: Goya, Géricault, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso… Opera and cinema were quick to exploit the murky appeal of extreme violence, turning it into an exquisite pleasure sure to delight the audience. A supposedly scientific approach to the criminal temperament appeared in the late 19th century: Lombroso, who died in 1909, developed an anthropological theory which claimed to define physical marks of the criminal, which were not only inscribed in his body but perhaps even hereditary. This idea also partly shifted the responsibility for crime from the individual to a social class, and then to a race, or at least laid them open to scientific appraisal, for which Bertillon later drew up the procedures. A man doomed
to crime by his very anatomy was to a certain extent “irresponsible”. Such theories had a significant influence on representation in painting, statuary or photographs. Like Daumier, whom he admired, Degas regularly attended court hearings, and scrutinised the defendants’ faces in an attempt pierce the secrets of the “science” of criminology.
Far from being an innocent girl, Degas’ “petit rat” in a tutu is a dangerous rodent spreading the plague. Sexual violence haunted Degas; it could only lead to the excesses of neo-baroque frenzy in Cézanne’s early work, then in Picasso, before flowering in Dix and Grosz, Frida Kahlo or Munch’s last works. The spectre of the gibbet, the garrotte and the guillotine was omnipresent, at a time when architects were designing prisons on the Panopticon model, based on the principle of constant observation. In recent years a new issue has arisen in the field of crime and punishment: is the crime of passion or the compulsive crime of the serial killer, a matter for psychiatric appraisal and internment in a mental hospital, or a case for the law courts and incarceration in a prison? The question reaches beyond crime to raise the problem of Evil, and beyond social circumstances to touch on metaphysical anguish. Art, especially in the period from 1820 to 1920, has a spectacular testimony to bear on that issue too. By assembling images of all kinds, writing and music, the
exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay strives to reconcile the aesthetics of violence and the violence of
Original idea by Robert Badinter, former Minister of Justice.
Curated by: Jean Clair, Member of the Académie française; Laurence Madeline, curator at
the Musée d’Orsay; Dominique Lobstein, research assistant at the Musée d’Orsay.