Culture in France

Guillotine steals limelight at Paris exhibition

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Crime chased by justice and divine vengence by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Crime chased by justice and divine vengence by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

This week, a controversial new exhibition opened in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay. The contents are deemed so shocking that children are not allowed to visit, and the museum has put a warning on its website about the chilling content of the show. It’s called “Crime and Punishment”, after Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, and is the initiative of former French Justice Minister, Robert Badinter.


The exhibition is an impressive collection of over 475 works - paintings and sketches, sculptures and newspaper cuttings. But the star of the show is not a work of art. Just inside the entrance to the exhibition,standing 4.2 metres tall, partly covered in a black veil, stands the Widow - the last guillotine ever to be used in France. It is exhibited here next to a dark portait of the Devil, with glowing eyes. On the wall behind it is painted a quote from great French author Victor Hugo, a militant for the abolition of the death penalty:

"One can have a certain indifference about the death penalty, not quite knowing whether to say yes or no…until one has seen the guillotine".

Exhibiting the guillotine has caused quite a stir in Paris, and visitors to the exhibition do not stand for long to contemplate the dull blade and the metal basin underneath, used to catch the head of the criminal.

Lawyer and former justice minister, Robert Badinter says it took some persuasion to get the museum to show the guillotine. Badinter is famous in France for his long battle against the death penalty, a battle which he finally won in 1981, when the death penalty was abolished in France. He told RFI why he wanted to see his old enemy in a museum.

"The time had is the symbol for me of abolition of the death penalty. I had seen the guilltine at work in 1972 and this is the same one - the very same instrument. Now..I would dare to say - it's dead. Nothing can a be stronger symbol of the abolition of the death penalty in France - it's just a piece in a museum".

How to get there
Cherche-Midi prison by Eugène Atget

When the death penalty was abolished, Badinter, as Justice Minister, insisted that it was kept as a piece of French judicial history, but an agreement was made that it would not be shown for at least 25 years, to allow passions to subside around the subject. Now that this time has passed, the showing of this instrument is still controversial. Yet, at the time of its invention, the Widow was considered to be a humane invention. Its inventor, Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, created it as a more efficient and less cruel alternative to hanging, or beheading by axe.

The show also features some of the greatest masters of the art world, and follows their attempts to inderstand the criminal mind, and the public's need for punishment. The collection contains works by some of the world's greatest artists - Francisco Goya, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte and Andy Warhol.

Jean Clair, who is the curator of the exhibition, says that these violent themes are present, yet ignored throughout art history. "There are few subjects which are more commonly represented in art than crime. In museums, more than half of the works are on the subject. Here, the effect is doubled because we see the crime, followed by its punishment - which is in itself another crime".



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