In Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” a group of connoisseurs meets in a London club whenever the papers report on a new crime to “criticize it as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art.”
In a similar vein, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris has assembled more than 400 paintings, prints, drawings, posters and photographs under the title “Crime and Punishment.”
At the entrance, you’re greeted by the last guillotine used in France until 1981 when the death penalty was abolished. Robert Badinter, the then minister of justice who shepherded the law through the National Assembly, is the driving force behind the exhibition.
From the organizers’ perspective, the advantage of thematic shows is that you don’t have to confine yourself to masterpieces to make your point. It’s an opportunity to get your daubs, the B-movies of art history, out of storage and give them a place in the sun.
Take, for instance, Jean-Paul Marat, the bloodthirsty revolutionary, who was stabbed to death in a bathtub. You may be familiar with Jacques-Louis David’s glorification of the dead man. Here, David’s painting is confronted with later versions. Depending on the political correctness of the time, they either celebrate Charlotte Corday, Marat’s nemesis, or damn her as an enemy of the people.
Lady Macbeth, Salome
In another section, titled “La Femme Fatale,” Henry Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth is joined by Gustave Moreau’s Delilah, Salome and Messalina. If you want to see a murderess in action, you have to proceed to the room with front pages from “Le Petit Journal,” once France’s most popular tabloid: Here you find Jeanne Weber, a serial killer of children, strangling yet another of her charges.
In most cases, though, women are the victims, not the perpetrators. One of the gems of the show, “Rape” by Edgar Degas, shows a half-undressed woman watched by a man lurking in the shadow, possibly a reference to a novel published in the same year, 1868.
Three years later, Gustave Courbet portrayed himself in the Sainte-Pelagie penitentiary: In 1871, he was held responsible for the demolition of the column on the Place Vendome by the Commune and sentenced to six months in prison.
The “Punishment” part of the show includes mug shots and photographs of crime scenes that have nothing to do with art history. They focus on criminal investigation.
If you’re curious to discover what Henri-Desire Landru, the French Bluebeard and model of Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” looked like -- here’s your chance to find out.
Not everything hits the mark. To include a bronze sculpture of Degas’s “Petite Danseuse” because she has the receding forehead that contemporary criminologists thought was typical of outlaws is far-fetched.
To rehash the old canard that Walter Sickert may have been Jack the Ripper is ridiculous: Joseph, the painter’s son who invented the cock-and-bull story, later admitted that it was a hoax.
“Crime et Chatiment” runs through June 27. For details, http://www.musee-orsay.fr or call +33-1-4049-4814.
If the Musee d’Orsay has whetted your appetite for more, the photo show of Paris prisons (most of them long gone) at the Musee Carnavalet also may be for you.
“L’Impossible Photographie -- Prisons Parisiennes 1851-2010” runs through July 4. For more information, go to http://www.carnavalet.paris.fr or call +33-1-4459-5858.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)