Too important to miss – Les papesses Avignon Palais du Pape and Galerie Lambert until 11 November

  • kiki-smith

  • Louise_Bourgeois_Femme_Couteau_2002

Everybody knows that when a new pope is elected puffs of white smoke are emitted from the chimney of the Vatican. Few people know that ritual also requires every incoming pope to sit on a chair with a hole in the base through which his genitalia can be examined. The reason for this curious apparatus dates back to the myth of Pope Joan, which came into existence around the 13th century. So the story goes Joan was a saintly woman, who disguised her sexuality when she joined the church. Through her good deeds and closeness to God she rose through the ranks and eventually became Pope. She was universally admired and respected until one day she gave birth while riding a horse and was then stoned to death for her deception.

Until relatively recently the story of Pope Joan was believed by many within the Catholic church to be true. Indeed, so afraid was the church hierarchy of the possibility of another female pope, that the genitalia revealing chair was introduced. They needn’t have worried – modern academics have exposed Joan as a myth, illustrative of male anxiety about female empowerment.

Running until mid November, and taking its title and inspiration from Pope Joan, Galerie Lambert in conjunction with the Palais du Pape offers us its Les Papesses exhibition showcasing the art of five prominent female contemporary artists. On the website the work of these artists is described as timeless, linking the medieval and the modern. Visitors are thus encouraged to expect art with a ‘battle of the sexes’ slant with the five modern day Pappeses playing a redemptive role for the wrongs supposedly perpetrated on Joan.

Looking at the biographies of some of the artists adds to the feeling that a male vs female schism runs throughout the exhibition. Camille Claudel, the oldest of the exhibited artists, was born in 1864 and was for part of her life the muse and lover of Rodin. Declared mad by her brother she was incarcerated in a mental asylum. Despite repeated Doctors’ opinions declaring her of sound mind, there she remained until she died. Louise Bourgeios, an artist who is perhaps best known for her giant bronze casts of spiders, had a troubled relationship with her philandering father. Among other lovers he openly slept with Louise’s English governess.

The theme of the tortured woman is best illustrated by the works of Jana Sterbak. There’s a dress woven from wire and set on wheels, which is designed for a female model steps to step into and be controlled remotely by male visitors. Another Sterbak dress is wired with an electric current which slowly pulses into life when visitors step over an invisible line. Glowing writing reads: ‘Now you know how I feel.’ Throughout the exhibition there are uncomfortable images of pregnancy and childbirth including most strikingly a sculpture by Kiki Smith of a deer giving birth to an adult human.

Yet despite the title of the exhibition and the challenging nature of some of the images it is perhaps incorrect to overly stress the male female dichotomy. Particularly under the sweeping roof of the chapel in the Palais du Pape, the work of the five female artists reveals more of the deep despair at the heart of the human soul, and its eternal need for a promise of salvation rather than any simplified gender dialogue. There are moments of beauty in the exhibition including the haloed golden light cast through the windows of the Palais du Pape onto Sterbak’s iron bed, featuring a mattress made from loaves of bread, and also lightheartedness best illustrated by Sterbak’s stacked tower of mattresses which re-invents the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale.

Ultimately the title Papesses should be seen as an accolade marking the places of distinction which the five artists hold in the world of modern art. Links to the myth of Pope Joan are over simplistic. The works presented in Galerie Lambert and the Palais du Pape, form a remarkable collection of challenging modern art. To view the exhibition is to step outside the normal cosy world of Provencal art, all light, and colour, and experience something utterly unsettling, and profound.  Les Papesses is too important an exhibition to miss and for the next month in addition to the daily openings night tours are available every Thursday lasting two hours, starting in the seven’o clock twilight and finishing appropriately in darkness two hours later.

Select events this month for the culture vulture:

Atelier Paul Cezanne (Aix en Provence) is hosting New perspectives paintings by graduates of the Higher School of Art

Until the 3rd November in Arles an exhibition celebrating the portrayal of clouds in art at Musée Réattu 10 Rue Du Grand Prieuré 13200 Arles

Carrières de Lumières, Les Baux an audiovisual show tracing Monet, Renoir & Chagall’s Mediterranean journey.


If you liked this you might also like:

Camus Centenary – Overview of Camus work and life in Provence

Provence Popular Culture – A night at the football



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