Le Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness)
Domaine de Rentilly
Le Château Rentilly, Parc Culturel de Rentilly Michel Chartier
1, rue de l’Étang 77 600 Bussy-Saint-Martin
September – December, 2020
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, June 2020
Most truly great works of art are touched with death—born of anguish and despair, yet questing for evasive inoculating refuges from oblivion. With the cresting of the first wave of Covid-19 pestilence—now further complicated by the murder of George Floyd; the 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street—we are acutely aware these events are steering important cultural work towards a heightened sense of human mortality and vulnerability. I expect a reevaluation of contemporary art along these lines—with much of it looking like silly decorative relics of a receding age.
The bitter sweet view from the art world in Paris is that New York went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages over Europe, as America had precious weeks of warning about what was coming—yet it managed to make itself the global epicenter of the pandemic. Nothing probably could have prepared me better for this world-virus-pandemic-meets-American-black-lives-matter time of aesthetic change than my March 6th visit to an obviously prescient exhibition that combines contemporary artists with masterpieces from the Beaux-Arts de Paris’s deep collection. Created by students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris, and produced by Frac Ile-de-France and the Communauté d’Agglomération Marne et Gondoire, the exhibition entitled Le Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness) is located at the Domaine de Rentilly, just outside of Paris. I saw this repository of hermetic wisdom just before every art exhibition closed down around the world. It will now re-open in September and run to December, 2020.
In conjunction with this show’s intersecting of radical artistic thinking and obscure spiritual strivings, Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris has published a book of outstanding anatomical renderings by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty’s (1716–1785), the 18th century French anatomist, painter, philosopher, and mezzotint printmaker, called Essais et traités anatomiques (Anatomical Tests and Treatises). A member of the Dijon Academy of Sciences, in 1752 he began to publish Observations sur l’histoire naturelle, an early French scientific journal founded by him and later edited by his son, Jean-Baptiste. In 1754, he produced Anatomie general—illustrated by 18 plates in his sumptuous style—and for which he did all but three of the dissections himself. A few of his mezzotints, such as “L’ange anatomique” (1759), are hung in the Cabaret of Nothingness show, and are wonderful to encounter at their original scale. Like a mapping of the invisible reality of both the realm of the Covid-19 virus and our inner body host—these images remove the fleshy veil to reveal interior wonders. It’s strange how and why the style of anti-realist realism of this transcendently beautiful (and gnarly, if sad) book pervades much of my post-pandemic thought these days, with its emotional-visual dispatch of facing fear of disease and the inevitability of demise. The large, weird, well printed images in it are a visual meditation on humiliating death—with all of its cruel and nasty comedy. The weirdness of them actually helps confront the challenge of existence, especially the impressive and tender hermaphrodite print. Talk about push/pull: the precise serenity of these flayed images pulled me in as the horror of the subject pushed me away—reminding me that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was dismissive of the concept of good taste in his Aesthetics text, saying that “Taste is directed only to the external surface on which feelings play. So-called ‘good taste’ takes fright at all the deeper effects of art and is silent when externalities and incidentals vanish.”
It is important to know the title of the exhibition comes from the real Cabaret du Néant dinner club, that was founded in 1892 in the Pigalle district of Paris. Inspired by the theme of the medieval danse macabre—and the assimilation of the aesthetics of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Huysmans—it was fashionable among hip fin-de-siècle Parisians, and all sort of connoisseurs of the occult, who went there to talk, drink, and dance in the company of skeletons and ghosts. Pale-faced, black-suited undertakers welcomed visitors in a setting made up of tibias, skulls and femurs.
Likewise, sort of, the Cabaret of Nothingness exhibit provides the chance to do the counter-fearful thing—to look at what is feared with a twinkle of aesthetic pleasure—so that such an effort will help release the grip of fear. For example, the Francisco de Goya’s etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (circa 1799) is particularly pertinent to our bat-begun pandemic context in that it includes bats swirling menacingly over the head of the dozing figure. In the Anonymous 19th century Grim Reaper print “Nemini parco: Memento Mori,” death boldly proclaims the words nemini parco, which means: I spare no one. Looking hard at that kind of art means entering into yourself and emerging with a punk pleasure vocabulary you may never knew existed. There’s a deep abiding sadness here too, like a shadowy figure of yourself, you may wish to ignore, but cannot. For we want to feel in control of our destinies, even if we’re not.
At the Cabaret of Nothingness, I came face-to-face with the ambiguity of the human spirit over and over again. Both blind Franco-Slovenian philosopher-photographer Evgen Bavčar and Tereza Zelenková photographed dark-romantic, femme fatale, nude women, while Valérie Sonnier attempted to photograph their absence in her “Galerie Huguier” (2019): ghosts she believes to be haunting the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. To be honest, during the lock-down, as Spring arrived, my glimpses of empty and silent Paris boulevards, reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings, were as sublime as they were sad. Lucien Herve’s photograph “Amphitheater of the School of Medicine” (1952) expresses this mise en scène of necromancy-emptiness well, so that my full unconscious imagination could do there as it pleased.
Also working on this theme of the fullness of emptiness (and the emptiness of fullness) was Pierre Huyghe’s postmodern “Silence Score” (1997), a score transcription from a performance of John Cage’s “Silent Piece” (1952) (aka 4’33”—pronounced “four minutes, thirty-three seconds”). As well known, maintaining that “there’s no such thing as silence,” Cage instructed a pianist to sit silently in front of a piano at a public recital for 4 minutes and 33 seconds—a time span that was filled with a whole series of ambient noises. Inspired by this brilliant Cage concert, Huyghe transcribed the sounds he heard that haunted this period of “silence” onto his somewhat humorous silent score. Also making lite was Alain Séchas’s caustically humorous work that played out a grotesque scene set in a fake-innocent world. His mixed-media installation “Professor Suicide” (1995) shows five white bland pupils sitting in front of a balloon-headed teacher, who keeps pricking himself with a needle to the strains of Haydn’s Opus 77. Also taking the piss out of death is Alicia Paz’s gestural figurative painting “Vanité” (1994), from the collection the Frac Île-de-France.
From the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris’s collection, Jean Baptiste François Désoria’s “Torse ou demi-figure peinte” (1786) was to be admired and mused over. French sculptor Edme Bouchardon’s more shocking “Skinned” (18th century) sculpture depicts a standing flayed man, with one hand resting on a tree trunk, while pointing to the sky. For “Anatomie de l’homme” (1812), Théodore Gericault, whose best-known painting, of course, is The Raft of the Medusa, drew powerful upper parts of the male body—showing muscles and bones in a minute exploration of structure. Likewise stripped of illusion, Jules Talrich’s “Half-Skinned Bust” (19th century) delivers a punch of negation-disenchantment to the surface of reality.
More cynically joyful is Flemish engraver Hieronymus Wierix’s “Omne quod est in mundo, concupiscentia carnis est, et consupicentia oculorum, et superbla vitae” (17th century). But probably the linchpins of the exhibition are the two 19th century Anonymous memento mori prints, “Rest in Peace: Memento Mori” and “Memento Mori Nemini parco.” Yet my favorite piece from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts collection was the incredibly detailed (and ghastly) Albrecht Dürer etching “Le cheval de la mort” (1513) while the most emotional piece for me was Marcel Duchamp’s outreached flattened hand on the colorized poster for his exhibition Ready-mades and Edition of and on Marcel Duchamp at the Galerie Claude Givaudan (1967)—that reminds us of images of isolated elders, able only to touch hands with loved ones when separated by a window pane.
Far from being a toast—or a passive surrender—to death, the intense artistic creativity involved in both the exhibition Cabaret of Nothingness and the book Essais et traités anatomiques stimulates (for me at least) the flowing juices of life and confirms my love of visual art in the midst of the inevitability of suffering, loneliness, and loss. I greatly enjoyed the diversity of generation after generation addressing the essential question of how we can cope, through the immortality of great art, with the mortality of our human body and our death: something that is, in reality, beyond artistic narration. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author