TOULOUSE, France — The tipsy rapture experienced when in close contact with fine timeworn vanitas seems to stem from the discord felt between enjoyably empathizing with the ultimate barrenness that awaits us, and apprehending that barrenness. Baroness Henri de Rothschild (née Mathilde de Weisweiller), the wife of essayist, playwright, and creator of the Pigalle theatre in Montmartre, Baron Henri de Rothschild, must have felt that perverse aesthetic pleasure when amassing her collection of vanités, which was bequeathed on her death in 1926 to the Musée des Arts Decoratif in Paris. We know not why she was obsessed with these images (she was otherwise conventional) but the baroness’s challenging aesthetic passion for such hoary wares is for the first time fully on view in Toulouse at Fondation Bemberg’s exhibition Même pas peur: Vanités d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (Not Even Afraid: Vanitas of Yesterday and Today) in a sleek but sumptuous installation designed by Hubert le Gall. Abject Lovecraftian emotions are released by contemplating the small, realistic human bones assembled here in a kind of deadly mad ecstasy which secretly and sacredly already animates us.
The first piece in the show, Luigi Miradori’s painting “Putto Asleep on a Skull” (circa. 17th century), reminds us that at birth we already begin the process of dying. Then le Gall’s enchanting mise en scènes takes you on a ferocious excursion: an unashamedly attractive attack on the wretched simplicity of inchoate death. The abominable visual syntax of the vanitas on view is so rich and evocative as to border on optical logorrhea. The exhibition is so metaphorically purple as to spill over into ultraviolet, and I was thrilled to have seen it, for I have an abundant passion for skulls and skeletons in the vanitas vein. They were the staple of the hardcore punk culture that abetted the apocalyptic no wave New York scene in my formative years. But such bones and skulls are also at the root of vanitas art from the 17th century on: symbolic art that suggests the transience of life and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth with those of ephemerality — thus an impersonal attack on the personal ego-image’s capriciousness.
An obviously keen eye and dry sense of humor is behind this throng (180 pieces) of mostly carved skulls decorated with precious stones, carved skeletons, flamboyant ivory amulets, nerve-jangling luxe rosaries, disconcerting trinkets, unsettling engravings, and carved wood and marble objects from Europe and Asia. The artistic craftsmanship of the astounding French ivory carving “Skeleton in Shroud Sitting on a Tomb” (1547) transports the mind to disembodied deliberations. Such an eerie, skinless stillness so precisely rendered, is difficult to look away from. Also from France is the astonishing, sexy, terrifying, crazy, intoxicating “Eros Sitting on a Skull,” (ca. 18th century). Its tiny but macabre grandeur is stunningly rude and risqué. Holding a flaming heart in hand, the naked winged-boy’s genitals are replaced with a wicked, fierce-toothed skull, thus merging life instincts (Eros) and death instincts (Thanatos) into one effective image. Gazing on this beautiful ivory, abhorrent feelings stir and quiver and seethe. The elaborate unity of the ivory material in effect makes melodramatic gloom mix with comic-tragic reconciliation under the aegis of the erotic.
Flower-like, nihilistic death and sex imagery is also bound together in “Skeleton Seated on Skull” (19th century), a very delicately carved Okimono ivory sculpture from Japan. It’s fine craftsmanship cranks up the grand themes of life and death and soul in a way I see culminating in a double game of celebrating and mocking death. Holding a long, phallic-shaped instrument, the skeleton is either enjoying the superior position of riding-high on this skull, or possibly fucking it. When I write “soul” here, I am thinking of soul as in soul music: the mixing of sex and love with tragedy.
All art is a contribution to creative communications, so even gnarly death images are never but pretend destruction. In Not Even Afraid a morbid consciousness moves in and through and around these delightful carvings — in some cases changing my emotions from pity to folly in the same piece, and that flip of feeling ultimately projects life-affirming energies. For example, plenum and the vacuum meet and intermingle in another Okimono carving, “Skull and Serpent” (19th century). This freakish and sexily opulent piece of skull fuckery vibrates with virtuosity, projecting a mesmeric unease that plunges far below its material circumference. A long, thick, writhing, phallic snake has slithered out of the left eye socket and worked its way to the skull’s summit. Thus male virility is acclaimed, but also plagued with anxiety. Staring at it can make one feel a bit queasy: engulfed and saturated by its ill-omened, lapidary stylish significance.
Other parts of the show are distributed throughout the Foundation’s Hôtel d’Assezat building, a 16th century Renaissance palace jewel itself, that permanently houses a cherry Roger van der Weyden studio painting “Virgin and Child” (15th century) and works by François Clouet, Tiepolo, François Boucher, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Titian, Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, among others. Mathilde de Weisweiller’s gnarly collection is moodily re-contextualized by these artists’ paintings, as well as the more recent skull scenes of Niki de Saint Phalle and two Brassaï photographs of scratched graffiti. There are also eccentric paintings by Georges Braque and Miquel Barceló, a great skull drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s haughty last self-portrait photographs, and an Annette Messager pencils-gloves-skull, that bollixes up the high seriousness of the show in customary fashion.
On the other hand, the Gerhard Richter painting “Skull” (1983) penetrates any such lightweight social masks and turns the world upside down, into a slapstick spectacle of pompous posturing and neurotic defensiveness. The painter here shows his genius for displacing cultural reifications into an interminable shell-game analysis of the modern human psyche: To be or not to be? The loneliness of this masterful fabrication speaks to the fact that we are all but lone schematic specks of soon-to-be-discarded material cast from within the vast hereditary field.
With Gall’s lustrous mise en scenes, the sallow and sullen bravado of the show’s tiny pieces establishes a rhythm of pleasant discord that entails confronting intimidating and transcendent ideas (which foresee expiration) along with our own insignificance. This harsh miniature romanticism has by now been so well distributed and diffused through punk culture that its lugubrious repetitions are recognizable only as languor, or as a certain sardonic laconicism. But a small bony narration keeps turning back into something profoundly singular: the sole skull. That deeply personal relic we all own but never see.
So a visit to Not Even Afraid: Vanitas of Yesterday and Today is a melancholy meditation on humiliating death in all its nasty comedy. Contemplation of the show’s decadent finery, that by its exquisite existence denounces disintegration and decomposition with impertinence, offers up an experience that makes life faintly fun in face of death’s inexorability. Indeed, Vanitas of Yesterday and Today plays a smart art game with our knowledge of death’s putrid ignobility, as its artistic excellence gives the skulls on view a glow of defiant dignity that asserts art’s (and life’s) primacy over death. Because dumb death is beyond narration, beyond images, and beyond words.