High priestesses of magic

September 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Louise Bourgeois, Spider

When my boyfriend and I rolled into Avignon last month, we thought we were just going to visit the Palais des Papes and gawk at its medieval splendours. Little did we know that something extraordinary awaited us in its halls: Les Papesses.

Not Pope Joan of legend, but an exhibition of five female artists – four contemporary (Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak and Berlinde de Bruyckere) and one late nineteenth-century (Camille Claudel) – whose work, in various ways, contains echoes of both that iconic figure and the high priestess of tarot (also called La Papesse in French). Two of them – Claudel and Bourgeois – I have long adored; Smith and Sterbak I knew by name but not by their art, and de Bruyckere I’d never heard of at all (which says more about my ignorance than anything else – I found out after seeing the exhibition that she is representing Belgium at the Venice Biennale this year).

The exhibition, which was organised by the Collection Lambert (Avignon’s contemporary art museum), was actually spread over two venues – the Palais des Papes, where most of the more monumental works were displayed, and the Collection Lambert itself, whose more intimate galleries are better suited to small-scale pieces. The hang at the Palais des Papes is one of the most sensitive and sympathetic I’ve ever seen, allowing the various works to resonate not only with each other, but with their setting. (It’s worth noting that none of them – not even those of the three living artists – was created expressly for the exhibition.) Perhaps one of the most affecting examples (and I’ve been kicking myself ever since for not taking a photo) was Sterbak’s chains of white linen gowns hung above staircases at both venues. At the Palais des Papes it reminded me of a flight of angels. At the Collection Lambert, you reached the sister piece by passing a wall covered with a blow-up of a turn-of-the-century photograph of the gates of the asylum of Montfavet (which, by ironic and spooky coincidence, is now a suburb of Avignon) where Claudel spent the last thirty years of her life locked up at the wish of her family, and the gowns, with their arms crossed over their backs, took on an utterly different significance: straitjackets, the gowns forced on Claudel and her fellow sufferers by doctors less concerned with curing them than with keeping them away from respectable society.

Camille Claudel

The curators had managed to gather a fair percentage of Claudel’s oeuvre for the show, from large groups like The Waltz and Ripe Age to The Little Chatelaine and, one of my favourites because it shouldn’t work, because it should look naff and silly to 21st-century eyes and yet is anything but – Deep in Thought, a small sculpture of a young woman, barefoot and wearing a flowing chemise, kneeling with her head sunk in reverie before a fireplace which is lit by an electric light bulb. It should by all rights be cringingly literal; in fact, it’s mysterious and magical. At the other end of the scale, three tiny men’s heads, the size of a fist, grimacing and crying out under glass bells. Who knows what Claudel would think of them being displayed this way, but there’s something simultaneously macabre and moving about it.

Louise Bourgeois, The View of the World of the Jealous Wife

Louise Bourgeois is an artist whose work I love in virtually any setting – the neat white cube of a contemporary museum, the stuffy atmosphere of Freud’s house, even out of doors. Putting her spiders in the Palais des Papes, though, made me reconsider them – here they look as if they’ve stepped out of a medieval bestiary. As for the cells, especially those that deal with madness and imprisonment, they take on a new significance in relation to Claudel (both her work in the show and their geographical proximity to Montfavet).

Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith may have been my favourite discovery of the exhibition – not least because she is an absolutely stunning draughtswoman. Her figures somehow manage to look simultaneously contemporary and timeless, as if they’ve stepped out of early Renaissance engravings (or, indeed, off a deck of tarot cards, enveloped as they are in esoteric symbols). There’s something both delicate and brutal about her line, whatever material she works with.

Jana Sterback, Planetarium

Jana Sterbak is probably best known for her dresses and other pieces that modify the body, but – apart from the flying gowns mentioned above – the pieces I found the richest in the show were two versions of the Planetarium, giant glass balls ranged like a tabletop solar system or a three-dimensional rendering of a map of the heavens from an age when people still believed the universe consisted of nesting spheres.

Berlinde de Bruyckere

As for Berlinde de Bruyckere… I found her work extraordinarily hard to look at. She works in wax, tinted to resemble livid flesh (and, in a series of pieces inspired by the myth of Actaeon, textured so that the distinction between antler, wood and flesh is painfully elided) and shaped into bodies, mutilated, reconfigured, always headless, achingly abject and vulnerable, like one of Mathias Grünewald’s crucified Christs given solid form. In some ways, her work could be Claudel’s taken to its utmost extreme. It is visceral in the most literal sense of the word.

Taken individually, each artist’s work is rich, fascinating and thought-provoking. Taken all together, as we wandered through the Palais des Papes and later, the same afternoon, the Collection Lambert, a number of common threads emerged among seemingly disparate works. Magic, mysteries and alchemical transformation. The vulnerability of the body contrasted with the luminous power of the mind. The thin line between madness and reason. It’s rare for me to still be thinking almost daily about an exhibition more than a month after I saw it, but this is one shining exception to the rule.

Les Papesses runs until 11 November. If you have a chance to get to Avignon before then, do – you won’t regret it.

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