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Barbecued Buttocks? Cannibals Inspire Contemporary Artists

"White Tiles, Red Meat" by Adriana Varejao is on view through May 15 in the show "All Cannibals" at the Maison Rouge. Source: Maison Rouge via Bloomberg

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The tastiest parts of the human body are the breasts and the buttocks.

So says St. Jerome, the church father, in his treatise “Against Jovianus,” in which he describes the dietary preferences of the Attacots, a tribe living in Roman Britain.

They were, of course, not alone in eating their fellow humans. “All Cannibals,” an exhibition at the Maison Rouge in Paris, starts with a 1593 print depicting Brazilian women and children sitting around the severed head of a man, happily munching the rest of his body.

Whether this edifying scene is a case of exo- or endocannibalism, the consumption of an enemy or a deceased relative, isn’t clear.

The title of the show, which displays works by about 30 mostly contemporary artists, is a quote from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: “We are all cannibals. After all, the simplest way to identify with someone is to eat him.”

From Brazil the show jumps forward to Francisco de Goya and the morbid symbolists Odilon Redon, Felicien Rops and James Ensor. Goya appears in different guises: Next to his “Caprichos,” there are prints from his “Disasters of War,” altered by the Chapman brothers.

“Saturn Devouring His Son,” one of Goya’s most gruesome canvases, has morphed into two photographs: One shows an assemblage by Vik Muniz, who recreated the painting out of junk. The other is a self-portrait by the Japanese “appropriation artist” Yasumasa Morimura, who specializes in substituting faces and bodies in famous pictures with his own.

Cannibal Gourmet

Cannibalism, we are told, is a popular theme in contemporary Japanese art. Issei Sagawa, a mentally disturbed student who killed and ate a Dutch girl in 1981, became a celebrity after he had been found legally insane and even became a food critic.

Jeanette Zwingenberger, the curator, says in the press material that she turned down works that smacked too much of gore. In fact, even the fainthearted aren’t in danger of being overcome by twinges of nausea.

Michel Journiac’s “Mass for a Body,” a sacrilegious performance during which he distributed sausages made with his blood, is only visible on a video. Adriana Varejao’s painting of guts spilling out of a tiled wall looks almost abstract.

Dark Comedy

Gilles Barbier’s photomontage displaying six clones of himself butchering each other or Renato Garza Cervera’s “Genuine Contemporary Beast,” the skin of a tattooed man splayed on the floor like a bearskin rug, are nice examples of black humor. (Cervera has said that he was inspired by gang wars in Los Angeles.)

Much is made of the female breast and the feeding of babies. That seems farfetched. On the other hand, the rich world of vampires is only mentioned in passing.

If you expect a systematic and thorough examination of a fascinating subject, you’ll be disappointed. As an introduction, the show is worth a visit.

“Tous Cannibales” is at Maison Rouge through May 15. Information: http://www.lamaisonrouge.org or +33-1-4001-0881. The exhibition then travels to Me Collectors Room Berlin (May 28-Sept. 11), see http://www.me-berlin.com.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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