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VERSAILLES, France — In curator Béatrix Saule’s extensive exhibition Le Roi Est Mort (“The King Is Dead”), the Palace of Versailles is presenting a shaggy-dog narrative about the death of Louis XIV. Known alternately as Louis the Great or the Sun King, this Louis was the king who converted a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII into the spectacular Palace of Versailles that we know today. Perhaps unintentionally, this darkly comic show heightens our awareness of the impertinent finery of decomposition.
With works from the Frick Collection in New York, the English royal collections, the Rüstkammer in Dresden, and the Prado Museum in Madrid, Le Roi Est Mort includes stodgy ceremonial portraits, coffin plaques, gilded crowns, scepters, swords, effigies, gravestones, surgical instruments, and (the best part) an account of Louis’s autopsy. The procedure included cutting and separating his body into three sections before embalming him and putting him in a coffin made of lead and oak. Itself cut into nine sections, the exhibition is a broad historical affaire that celebrates the 300th anniversary of the king’s death on September 1, 1715, due to gangrene.
During Louis’s 72-year reign, France was the leading European power, and this is what gives the macabre exhibition a cumulative tone — one that is, ultimately, comic. Seeing the all-powerful, amoral (he had many illegitimate children) superman at the mercy of unsophisticated doctors and the forces of disease and death far beyond his comprehension is darkly funny.
In accordance with a tradition dating from the death of Philippe le Bel (1314), the bodies of French kings were separated into three parts (body, entrails, and heart), each with its own grave, thereby increasing the number of places where homage could be paid to the dead monarch. Louis XIV’s coffin was placed at Saint-Denis in the Bourbon tomb, without a monument. A recent discovery identified the steps to the sanctuary at Notre-Dame de Paris as the exact location of the barrels containing the entrails of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. The heart is buried at the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris, a church that contained the monuments for the hearts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV until they were destroyed during the Revolution. This exhibition includes the copper plaque placed on Louis XIV’s coffin, borrowed from the Basilica of Saint Denis — where it had been desecrated during the Revolution and then stored in the archives of the Musée de Cluny — as well as funky surgical instruments and apothecary drugs from the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine.
The humor here swerves between royal pomp and farcical absurdity, with the exhibition’s emphasis geared slightly more to the latter — at least in my eyes. The enjoyment to be had ultimately depends on whether or not you inject satirical intent where it is not supposed to exist. You have to allow yourself to enjoy the cheap thrill of mocking the gauche excess of chopping up Louis. But there is little doubt that the rather kinky surgical tools do occasionally capsize the glorious kingly narrative spun here into one about invisible dirty forces just below the surface of things. Everything else funny follows from this ignobility.
From the Constantine Room to the Morocco Room, the exhibition spans nine sections laid out by scenographer Pier Luigi Pizzi — the same man who recently designed The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome at the Petit Palais. With much visual drama, using darkness and pin spot lighting, he knits together works of art and historical documents from French and foreign collections (including furniture of funeral liturgy) into a great Baroque show of supposedly huge significance to courtly sensibility — and those that still yearn for it. Certain aspects of this visual drama could, I imagine, appeal to the fantasist tastes of blood-and-soil reactionaries and far-right neo-royalists — those with a fervent belief in the mystical and glorious destiny of France, who are dedicated to the destruction of secularism and liberalism and yearn to re-establish an atavistic hierarchy constructed along ultra-traditionalist Catholic lines. Thinking about those views while looking at the stumpy legs and saccharine facial expression in Pierre Firens’s “Portrait d’Henri IV sur son lit de mort” (“Portrait of Henri IV on his death bed,” 1610) is where the black humor starts to kick in.
The wax portrait of the king at age 68 — featuring mounds of real hair — is a ridiculous gas. Made by Antoine Benoist, it reminded me not only of Donald Trump’s hairpocalypse, but also of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, an important precursor of Dada that created a scandal when it was first performed at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1896. Through a language of hilarity, Ubu Roi tells the farcical story of Père Ubu, an officer of the King of Poland and a grotesque figure who epitomizes the idiocy of officialdom. And for that grotesque suggestion, Benoist’s hyperreal simulation of the king’s hair can be snickeringly appreciated. The obviously excessive hair throws into relief the previously mentioned kingly chop. Here one sees beneath the jaded stucco surface of power.
At Le Roi Est Mort, one might first be tempted to be impressed by the traditionalist signifiers at play, clues to what some have identified as France’s rather thinly veiled conservative longing for power in the face of digital globalization. This longing, an impulse which verges on the nauseatingly nostalgic, is politically foolish as it fuels the dangerous fantasies of the far right. But the reward of the exhibition is not so much the opportunity to celebrate the courtly life and death of Louis XIV, but rather the antagonistic, mocking, blatantly satirical humor that was at least partially responsible for the coming French Revolution. By situating Louis’s death in the context of the Revolution, this show it not just talking about the king and his objects, but rather describing a hidden, cynical humor. Louis’s grand pomp allows humor to swallow various aspects of his “nobility” into a satirical network lying silently beneath it, an invisible mockingness at work below the realm of the regal power of appearance. (That invisible realm of snide forces — so common to our political world today — is one that does not concern itself too much with the victims of power, but prefers to mock the transcendental aspect of power, now mediatized and turned into what Jean Baudrillard once called the great procession of simulacra.)
Surely, in chopped up death, the king becomes a funny abstraction, an object of drôle enunciation, but the show makes no effort to describe more closely the appearances of rot and pain in the operation of the gangrenous death event. In Le Roi Est Mort we see both power’s sinister intoxication, its appeal, but also its farcical mendacity (which it tries to conceal behind pomp). The black comedy of the forensic fairy-tale I constructed out of the royal mélange allowed me to escape the official royal narration. It kept turning the show back into something profoundly idiosyncratic, that deeply strange, incurable, irrational smell we all must share one day: the royal stink of death. Le Roi Est Mort offers a meditation on humiliating royal death in all its nasty comedy.