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Lacan, the Exhibition: When the artist precedes the psychoanalyst

Entrance to Lacan, l’exposition. Quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse © Centre Pompidou-Metz / Marc Domage

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL January 22, 2024

Just in time, in the midst of cold-moody-gray winter France, comes Lacan, the Exhibition: When the artist precedes the psychoanalyst to lift the spirit at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. It is the first art exhibition dedicated to Jacques Lacan. 

As an introduction to the exhibition, a detailed biography recalls the main stages of his life and work and includes many photos of Lacan.

Gisèle Freund, Jacques Lacan, Paris © RMN gestion droit d‘auteur / Fonds MCC / IMEC / Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Gisèle Freund

Let’s turn to the art. Lacan, the Exhibition is delightfully/gloriously hot with sexual obsessions tied to Lacanian notions hinged to the transgressive and disruptive nature of sexual desire: beginning with the mirror stage. Among many other artworks, this theme is most majestically suggested with the Narcissus (1597–1599) painting by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, on loan from the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome.

Le Caravage, Narcisse, 1597-1599 Italie, Rome, palais Barberini, galerie d'Art antique © Photo SCALA, Florence, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Scala

Some of the other sections include the concept of Lalangue, with work of artists who have played with words, double meanings, babbling, and poetry. Here Hans Bellmer’s engraving in the book Histoire de l’œil by Georges Bataille (1947) jumped out at me, for of course the physical link between Bataille and Lacan was Sylvia Bataille (born Sylvia Maklès). At twenty, she married Bataille with whom she had a daughter, the psychoanalyst Laurence Bataille. Starting in 1938, Sylvia was companion of Lacan with whom she had a daughter, Judith Miller. Later, Sylvia married Lacan in 1953.

Hans Bellmer engraving in the book Histoire de l'œil by Georges Bataille (1947), photo by the author

The Name of the Father addresses the notion of patriarchy confronted by a jouissance (enjoyment) that cannot be contained (or fully understood) within the language of society’s norms.

Next, is a section on object a: Lacan’s invention to describe the object that is the cause of desire as a lack, remainder and fall. It is deployed in a range of variations: fall, phallus, breast, body fragments, shit, voice, nothing, gaze and lastly hole.

Louise Bourgeois, Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968-1999 Caoutchouc uréthane pigmenté, pièce suspendue, 59,7 x 26,7 x 19,7 cm © The Easton Foundation / Adagp, Paris,  2023 / Photo by the author

Dominique Vivant Denon, Le Phallus phénoménal (18th C). photo by the author

Hans Bellmer, Portrait du Pere (1955), photo by the author

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, L’Infâme Vénus couchée. Posture lubrique d’après nature

Marcel Duchamp, Female Fig Leaf (1951), photo by the author

Annette Messager, Mes vœux, 1989 Collection particulière © Adagp, Paris, 2023 / Photo atelier Annette Messager

Andy Warhol, Piss Painting (1978) (top) Piero Manzoni, Merde d'artista (1961) photo by the author

Closely tied to this (and every) theme is the Regard (Look) section. This is interesting because for Lacan, the real is that which is outside of symbolic representation. Lacan ‘saw’ eroticism as a means of accessing the real through acts of transgression and the breaking of taboos. In his ‘view’ erotic experiences have the potential to disrupt the symbolic order and bring the individual into contact with the raw unmediated aspects of existence.   

Douglas Gordon, Upshot, 2020 Vidéo mono canal sans son, 14' 17" © Douglas Gordon / Studio lost but found / Adagp, Paris, 2023. Photo. Archives Mennour / Courtesy the artist and Mennour, Paris

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (d’après), Coup d'œil du théâtre de Besançon vu dans un œil, 1847, photo by the author

Francisco de Zurbaran, Sainte Lucie (1640), photo by the author

Love for Lacan is “what replaces the absence of sexual relations” (Encore, Seminar, Book XX, text edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris, Seuil, 1975), but is also what opens the way to jouissance. “Only love causes jouissance to stoop to desire” (L’Angoisse, Seminar Book X, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris, Seuil, 2004). One of the best sections of Lacan, the Exhibition is devoted to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866). As is well known, Lacan and Sylvia bought the painting in 1955 and kept it hidden behind a panel designed by André Masson that was placed next to it in the show; but (strangely) photos of it (the Masson) were banned. 

Gustave Courbet, L‘Origine du monde, 1866 Paris, musée d‘Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Although Lacan never spoke about L’Origine du monde, he devoted four lessons in his Seminar XIII to analyzing Las Meninas by Diego Velásquez, and also refers to the Portrait of the Infanta Maria Marguerita in the Louvre. But perhaps the most relevant to today’s complex gender concerns is the section called Woman does not exist, by underlining that there is no essence of woman and by questioning misogynous representations. For Lacan, the real is a realm of desire and drive that lies outside of the symbolic order and thus resists gender symbolization. 

Betty Tompkins, Fuck Painting #59, photo by the author

Femininity is often multifaceted, and the masquerade section pays homage to Joan Riviere’s concept that was taken up and converted into Lacan’s position that anatomy is not destiny. Meaning that gender does not necessarily always correspond to the sex assigned at birth. Indeed, for Lacan, the real is that which disrupts the symbolic order and creates a gap or lack in the subject, leading to a constant and unfulfilled desire for completion. 

The There are no sexual relations section is organized around a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923) (also known as The Large Glass) where the bride’s enjoyment of pleasure in the upper realm occurs without any physical contact with the bachelors in the lower realm. It is a reproduction created by Pascal Goblot called To Be Broken (2014). Over a period of more than ten years, Goblot performed/created To Be Broken by exploring Duchamp’s manufacturing processes and by finding the materials of the original work. In 2014 he created this identical reconstruction of The Large Glass, with a view to destroying it within the Lacan exhibition.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #501, 1977-2011 Epreuve gélatino-argentique, 22,2 × 17,5 cm Édition 4/20 Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton © Cindy Sherman / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Salvador Dalí, Dormeuse, cheval, lion invisibles, 1930 Huile sur toile, 50,2 x 65,2 cm Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne

Pascal Goblot, To Be Broken (2014)

There is also a section of enjoyment of female pleasure, epitomized in the mystical transports expressed in Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and its contemporary incarnations. I greatly enjoyed the Carol Rama, Ivan Hurash (1946) drawing within this mental context. 

The last section of the exhibition is devoted to topology which reflects both Lacan’s interest in the knots (Borromean knots and Möbius strips) and braiding produced by François Rouan, an artist he met at the Villa Médicis, and for whom he wrote a text. 

Carol Rama, Ivan Hurash (1946), photo by the author

Marcel Duchamp, 3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913–14, replica 1964, photo by the author

The visit concludes with a cabinet of curiosities, entitled Curiosa, showing how Jacques Lacan is still a source of inspiration for artists. Lacan, the Exhibition: When the artist precedes the psychoanalyst (Lacan, l’exposition. Quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse) is on view at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, France. Curators: Marie-Laure Bernadac and Bernard Marcadé, art historians, assisted by Gérard Wajcman and Paz Corona, psychoanalysts. On view December 31, 2023 through May 27, 2024. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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