Les Papesses – a shocking show of female art

I had the opportunity to visit another unique exhibit at the Collection Lambert and the Palais des Pape, Avignon. After the really impressive Barcelo show last year I was curious how the Papesses show would be. I was looking forward to see some more original works by Louise Bourgeois and for the first time originals by Kiki Smith. Also I was wondering how the works of Camille Claudel would fit to the contemporary art not to speak about the artists I never had heard before: Berlinde de Bruyckere and Jana Sterbak.

It was a smashing show to say the least, mostly very disturbing but also inspiring. I can only report on a very small portion of the exhibited items not to speak of the impressions they made. The exhibit was overwhelming and most of the impressions belong to the realm of the unspeakable, to unclear feelings of fear, shame , thread, pain and anxiety and so on. I have put up a short review of the great catalogue which I consider a collectors item that I will read in coming months and certainly will refer to again and again.

The exhibition at Collection Lambert (later continued in the Palais des Papes) started with smaller rooms and intimate works drawings and prints in modest format in the first one, but then expanded into the large rooms with pieces in almost monumental dimensions and some bigger installations.

I spend quite some time in the second smaller room that was dedicated to works by Berlinde de Bruyckere, a wall piece composed of hanging deer antlers (link to images of a solo exhibit at Gallery continua,China) and a table covered with a stack of deer antlers all in larger than life-size. Surface texture and color evoked the impression of blood and flesh pieces on freshly broken bones. Some textile wraps were applied to the antlers too, which are not real antlers but copies made of wax.

The table installation evoked association of decay, death, slaughter in a wild mix with a dinner or last supper table. All those unpleasant de Bruyckere works seemed to originate from some weird nightmare to me. Although the titles referred to classic Greek mythology of Actaeon I couldn’t make sense of any those pieces throughout the entire exhibit including the big installation in the Palais des Papes : big cupboards filled with bloody looking bones or branches or two big, hanging, headless horse bodies or skins sewn into each other making for an incredible monstrosity.

I knew some of the works of Louise Bourgeois already and enjoyed her exhibit, but of course also her aesthetics are not for everybody. I liked the textile works series dedicated to a river
named Ode a la Bievre.

But there were also some of her disturbing installations for example the “red room” and Cell (arch of hysteria). Both claustrophobic rooms created by spirals of tall wooden or metal wall elements filled with a collection of uncanny objects used or left over from disturbing rituals. These installations are packed with diffuse allusions and intimations that open a wide range of possible interpretations but leave the viewer without a clue in the end.

I found those very powerful statements that I could relate to as they clearly refer to psychological topics, common fantasies and stereotypes of the subconscious.

Louise Bourgeois was also represented with her typical drawings dedicated to the female body including the topics of pregnancy and birth.

There was rarely a direct juxtaposition of sculptures by Camille Claudel and works by those two other female artists rather than with works, particularly glass objects, mostly balls made by Jana Sterbak. The expressive but realistic busts by Camille Claudel made an interesting contrast. With a more critical attitude one might say they fell out of the exhibit as realistic real world pieces, which is odd because the connection that is constructed between Camille Claudel and the other artists by the curator is based on the incredibly sad life of Camille Claudel a genius who fell out of all social connections due to her mental illness.

In one room a tables with numerous documents from the times Claudel (dossier medical) spent in the asylum near Avignon, handwritten letters, official statements of doctors etc. were displayed in an oppressive set next to another de Bruyckere distressed table (titled Infinitum) with glasses , cut off hands and meat pieces on cushions which enforced the feelings of pain and illness as well as opening the gate to the groundlessness of the human mind.

There were many more things to see in the top-level rooms under the building roofs. It was impossible to block the overwhelming impressions as the works and their display were not intrusive, which would have allowed a strong close down reaction of the mind. I think perversely seductive could be the right description. Visitors who immerse into the exhibit and start to deal with it have no chance but to become a temporary part of that nightmare. It is no exaggeration to say that this exhibit changed my mind, but I am not able to say how.

Until then I had not seen many Kiki Smith works yet. But finally at the end the big rooms at ground level at the end of the exhibit were all filled with very diverse works by Kiki Smith from her filigree, fragile drawings and collages on thin papers to sculptures and big paintings behind glass panels. I liked the works on paper, particularly the rich big ones looking like wall carpets similar to gothic room decoration. In all the works of Kiki Smith were kind of calming and healing the disturbing impressions made by the works of the other artists. Kiki Smiths’ work demonstrates that she lives in her own world, another space.

Sometimes however I found the works just too sweet, nice or just decorative (see an example titled “Homecoming” at Pace gallery,which was also on exhibit). The many blue stars tucked to the walls and hanging from the sealing, especially those in silver or shiny colour metal surface often merged together with some big bird silhouettes reminded my of oversized Christmas tree decorations. Her depictions mostly contained animals, flies, birds, snakes, lambs and foxes. There was a set of small white sculptures showing a woman in various situations with a wolf, dog, bear and lion. The images in the catalogue support the suspect I got in the exhibit already that this was not art but kitsch. Kiki Smith is quoted in the catalogue with saying that she follows the path of her work as it manifests itself. That probably includes the risk of falling of the cliff every now and then. I really don’t mind and that what I consider kitsch does take away the least bit from the great works, so for example also the sculpture titled born.

In the afternoon we spend some time with the exhibition part inside the Palais des Papes. The presentation of works inside the historic building was even more impressive. It has become quite popular in the past years to display art within historic monuments at Avignon (Palais des Papes,Chartreuse) and throughout Provence at Montmajour for example. As a matter of fact you can put any kind of art work inside these magnificent historic roman/gothic buildings and they will seem to look “better”, more important and meaningful.

The Palais de Papes is a brutal demonstration of ecclesiastical power of the popes who fled to Avignon. Inside history pours down from every square inch of the walls. That brings up a couple of questions. The exhibit mounted up to a power house inside the Palais that was hard to bear or to decipher for the visitor. Does the complex context and history of the Palais concur or compete with the exhibited art work? Is there an intention to elevate the art work to same importance and level of historic value as the building? Is this not just another spectacle for a tired public that needs stronger and stronger stimuli in order to get an effect?

There was this small room with the bread bed by Jana Sterbak. The worn out colors, the faint reminders of some fresco painting went together very well with the rusted metal frame of the bed filled with big slaps of bread with brown crust. But what was the message if any? There seems to be the danger that the exhibits drown in the mere picturesque because viewers can’t make sense of the context. Of course one could construct a connection between the Popes, the Papesse legend and the female artists. But what seemed to be a fairly coherent concept in the neutral rooms of the collection Lambert became questionable inside the Palais des Papes from my point of view the more spectacular things looked.

write a comment